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The Freeloader Act

| Thursday, February 26, 2015

If Gov. Scott Walker has his way, the state of Wisconsin will soon pass some version of the Freeloader Act. Joining 24 other states, Wisconsin would then impose government controls on the market because it has determined that too many people are acting in their own rational self-interest and not in the interests of their bosses. The new governor of Illinois, Bruce Rauner, is doing the same to public workers and is encouraging local governments to pass their own versions of the Freeloader Act. The Freeloader Act is called “Right to Work” by its proponents, and its goal is not the rights of workers but the gains of owners and politicians.

In order for workers to form a labor union, at least 30 percent of the workers in a bargaining unit must petition the National Labor Relations Board — which covers most private sector workers — for a union election, which is won if over 50 percent of the workers vote for a union. The union is bound by federal law to represent all workers in the bargaining unit, even those who refuse to join.

It is illegal for private employers and their workers to negotiate a contract stipulating that only union members can be hired (a “closed shop”) or that employees must join the union as a condition of employment (a “union shop”). While proponents of the Freeloader Act say they are fighting against “forced unionism,” the truth is that there’s no part of the country where you can be forced to join a union — not even under the same contractual provisions that can force you to buy your own uniforms or supplies as a condition of employment.

The Freeloader Act instead bans agency shops or “fair share” shops, where employers and employees may negotiate a contract that stipulates that all employees who receive services from the union must pay some “fair share” fee to cover those services. These fees cover only the union’s cost of providing services—they cannot be used towards political activities or efforts to organize other workplaces. The union is legally mandated to provide services including bargaining, grievance filing, advocacy in arbitration and court representation to nonmembers.

Championed by opponents of government interference in the “free market,” the Freeloader Act uses state power to force employers and employees not to make certain kinds of contracts. Here the “free market” narrative breaks down. The argument offered by proponents is that non-union workers are compelled to pay these fees against their will. But if they aren’t okay with a particular employer’s conditions of employment, why don’t they just work elsewhere?

The answer, of course, is that workers don’t have endless options of employment — we must work to survive, and we are not guaranteed employment. So workers are often forced to accept unfavorable terms under threat to their lives and livelihoods — if they do not, they may go without food or shelter or medicine. Yet these are the kinds of arguments for market regulation rejected by the same people pushing the Freeloader Act when workers agitate to raise the minimum wage, mandate certain benefits and improve working conditions.

The Freeloader Act isn’t about ideology — it’s just self-interest. Wealthy business owners want to ban contract provisions they don’t like so they’re not even on the bargaining table during negotiations. Politicians like Scott Walker and Bruce Rauner push these laws because they have the same economic interests as the wealthy elite. They also want to weaken unions that donate to political campaigns against them. If you want to keep working people down, you better make sure to cripple the only organizations that can stop you.

The greatest argument against the Freeloader Act is the unfairness of the thing. Unions are legally mandated to provide expensive services to people who refuse to pay for them. If unions could deny these services to non-members, then non-members might see the need to join the union — and the bosses can’t have that. Instead, these services must be paid for by the union, which is just an organization made up of member workers. Member workers are being forced by the state to pay benefits to nonmember workers — a union tax. Their only other option is to dissolve the union and lose the benefits themselves.

As capital owners act only in their own interests, working people should act in theirs. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, union workers make 27 percent more than non-union workers, not counting benefits. This holds within industries — union nurses make an average of $75,000 per year, for example, while non-union nurses make $60,000. By starving unions of resources, the wealthy owners seek to kill them off and drive down wages. The Freeloader Act covers half the country — including Indiana. If working people don’t stand up and support the unions, wages will fall, and livelihoods will be lost. Say no to the Freeloader Act and say yes to the union.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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  • Billy McMahon

    Note from the author:

    In the editing process, a factual error was inserted into the first paragraph. The sentence that reads “The new governor of Illinois, Bruce Rauner, is doing the same to public workers, encouraging local governments to pass their own versions of the Freeloader Act” was written “The new governor of Illinois, Bruce Rauner, is doing the same to public workers *and* encouraging local governments to pass their own versions of the Freeloader Act.” The two issues are separate, though part of the same larger campaign against workers’ rights.