News Story

Conflicted: Unions Call Nonmembers ‘Free Riders,’ But Insist on Representing Them

Under new bill, public sector unions wouldn’t have to represent workers who don’t pay them

Michigan state Rep. Pamela Hornberger, R-Chesterfield Township, introduced legislation May 11 that would allow public sector employees who choose not to pay union dues to also opt out of being covered by the union contract in their workplace.

Right now, all employees in a unionized workplace must accept the union’s representation and contract whether or not they are members of the union.

House Bill 4596 would institute the concept of “workers’ choice” for public employees, freeing them from forced union representation — and also free unions from having to represent employees who choose not to pay dues. If an employer chooses to negotiate with an individual employee, union negotiators would not be able to modify the individual’s contract. Nationwide, 87 percent of employees negotiate their own pay and terms of employment.

The bill allows public sector unions in Michigan to avoid having to represent employees who aren’t members. Unions sometimes call such people free riders. The bill would not change the status of workers who choose to pay dues, accept union representation and work under the union contract.

The Michigan Education Association, Service Employees International Union, and United Automobile Workers (which also represents many state employees) declined to comment.

The issue of so-called free riders has been a frequent complaint of unions ever since the 2012 debate over Michigan’s right-to-work law, when the MEA used the term “freeloaders” to describe such individuals.

Despite the complaints, in 2013 Senate Majority Leader Arlan Meekoff, R-West Olive, asked MEA spokesman Doug Pratt if his union would like to “be relieved of representing those people who want to opt out of the union?”

Pratt’s answer was “No.”

A 2016 online Google survey of rank-and-file union members across the country found that 67 percent support the right of workers in unionized workplaces to opt out of being represented by the union.

“Worker’s choice gives unionized public employees the opportunity to say ‘no thanks’ to union representation and unions the ability to say ‘goodbye’ to those who don’t pay dues,” said F. Vincent Vernuccio. Vernuccio, the director of labor policy for the Mackinac Center for Public Policy wrote a 2015 study on the issue. “Michigan could be the first in that nation to pass this type of legislation, cementing our place as the leader in worker freedom.”

In addition to removing the source of the unions’ complaints about free riders, the legislation could protect Michigan’s right-to-work law from legal challenges from unions that claim the law amounts to an unconstitutional “taking” of their property rights, said Vernuccio.

Similar legislation was introduced in the Missouri House after that state became the nation’s 28th right-to-work state in February. It was also introduced in Michigan by Rep. Gary Glenn, R-Larkin Township late in 2016, but failed to advance.

Hornberger didn’t respond to messages seeking comment.

Michigan Capitol Confidential is the news source produced by the Mackinac Center for Public Policy. Michigan Capitol Confidential reports with a free-market news perspective.