Unions, right-to-work and free-riders

Every now and then, followers of the aerospace industry read news about the relationships between Boeing and the unions. Recall the 8-week strike by the International Association of Machinists (IAM 751) in the fall of 2008, or the more recent negotiations with the Society of Professional Engineering Employees in Aerospace (SPEEA). See, for instance a recent article from Leeham News on the need for change in Washington state, “Right-to-Work, Creepy and Right-to-Worse in Washington State“.

Some months ago I was intrigued by what those terms meant in the American landscape, “right-to-work”, “unionized state”, “non-unionized state”, etc. Thus, I started looking for some definitions in the Wikipedia. And I found some of these terms misleading, or at least when seen from a European frame.

I initially thought that a non-unionized state might have some ban on unions, thus making it possibly more attractive for an employer if it deems it will have the higher hand in a negotiation. But no. There are indeed unions in non-unionized states. Let me just go through some passages taken from the Wikipedia trying to see the different terms:

Open shop: “An open shop is a place of employment at which one is not required to join or financially support a union (closed shop) as a condition of hiring or continued employment”.

Closed shop: “A pre-entry closed shop is a form of union security agreement under which the employer agrees to hire union members only, and employees must remain members of the union at all times in order to remain employed.” […]

“The Taft-Hartley Act outlawed the closed shop in the United States in 1947, but permits the union shop, except in those states that have passed right-to-work laws, in which case even the union shop is illegal. An employer may not lawfully agree with a union to hire only union members; it may, on the other hand, agree to require employees to join the union or pay the equivalent of union dues to it after a set period of time.”

Union shop: “A union shop is a form of a union security clause under which the employer agrees to hire either labor union members or nonmembers but all non-union employees must become union members within a specified period of time or lose their jobs.”

Right-to-work: “A “right-to-work” law is a statute in the United States that prohibits union security agreements, or agreements between labor unions and employers, that govern the extent to which an established union can require employees’ membership, payment of union dues, or fees as a condition of employment, either before or after hiring. “Right-to-work” laws do not, as the short phrase might suggest, aim to provide a general guarantee of employment to people seeking work, but rather are a government regulation of the contractual agreements between employers and labor unions that prevents them from excluding non-union workers”.

After I made this short review of those definitions, I got a complete different picture. Non-unionized states which I initially perceived as places with some intrinsic insecurity for the worker are simply having a  similar scheme than the one we have in Europe: shop-floor workers or engineers at Airbus are not required to join any union to get employment, nor are they forced to pay dues to union if contracted, though they may join one if they deem it in their interest.

I could even think of the union-states as an anachronism (forcing workers to join a union in order to work), however some of the reasons provided by opponents of the right-to-work law have sense:  free-riders would benefit from a collective bargaining agreement negotiated by a union without paying for that negotiation, the weakening of unions may lead to a race to the bottom, etc.

So far, I was never part of any union, thus I fall under the category of free rider, as I have and continue to benefit from social conditions negotiated by large unions.

Union affiliation

I found an interesting report prepared by the European Commission on “Industrial Relations in Europe (2010)” [PDF, 5MB]. Among the many sides of labour relations covered in the report, I found the graphic below with numbers about union affiliation rates in different European countries.

Union affiliation in Europe (source: European Commission).

Union affiliation in Europe (source: European Commission).

The figures in Spain and France, where I have worked so far, are around or below 10%. I found it in line with non-unionized states in the USA according to the Wikipedia: states without right-to-work laws have an affiliation generally above 10% (up to 25%) whereas states with such laws (thus similar to Spain or France) have lower figures of affiliation, less than 10% and down to 3.5% (with the main exception of Michigan).

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