Why We Shouldn’t Fall for the Members-Only Unionism Trap

One of corporate America’s next big goals might surprise you: passing legislation to prevent unions from having to represent workers who don’t pay dues. This is just the latest of many business-friendly labor law reforms proliferating across the country.

Over the past decade, the Republican Party has ascended to become the dominant political force in the U.S. government, controlling two-thirds of state legislatures, a majority of governorships, both houses of Congress and the White House. Conservatives also make up a majority on the Supreme Court. This growth in power of the GOP has also given rise to a new slew of anti-union legislation. 

States in over half the country have passed open-shop laws, euphemistically referred to as “right-to-work.” And an upcoming Supreme Court case, Janus v. AFSCME, makes it likely that the country’s entire public sector will become open shop in the next year.

This means that the nation’s public workers, from firefighters in California to public school teachers in Maine, will be able to receive the benefits of unionization without being required to pay fees for union representation.

In an open shop, unions have a legal duty to expend resources representing everyone who is covered by a union contract, even if those individuals are not union members and pay nothing for the benefits they receive. This is commonly known as the “free-rider problem.”

Some union supporters have argued that the way to solve the free-rider problem is by allowing unions to simply kick out the “freeloaders.”

For example, in a Los Angeles Times op-ed, professors Catherine Fisk and Benjamin Sachs advocate for reforming labor law so unions in open shop states would not be required to negotiate on behalf of all workers, but would instead only represent dues-paying members.

Labor activist Shaun Richman has written for In These Times about the benefits of “members-only” unionism, which, he says, would allow unions to “cede exclusive representation and kick out the…

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