Business Ethos Blog

The Mielke Way – The Right Thing To Do: Unions: The Right to Choose

Dr. David Mielke, Retired Dean of the College of Business at Eastern Michigan University

Once a union wins a certification election, it hardly ever has to stand for re-certification, no matter how much employee turnover takes place.  Entire work forces have inherited union representation from predecessors decades earlier.  Congress is working on the Employee Rights Act, which would require private sector unions to hold a re-certification election every 3 years, or when the work force turns over by at least 50% at the end of a collective bargaining agreement.  States are also looking at this issue for public sector unions.  The Supreme Court has also heard a case that challenges whether public employees can be forced to subsidize union advocacy.  Should current workers have the right to vote on unionization that their predecessors had decades ago?  Should other states follow the lead of the right to work states where union representation can’t be a condition of employment?  Should the Supreme Court expand coverage to include public workers?  Should the court eliminate the requirement that public employees support collective bargaining positions with which they disagree by paying union dues?  Should employees have more rights to choose?  What is the “Right Thing to do?”  Let’s look at some issues:

  1. According to the Labor Department, teachers and other government workers have become the backbone of organized labor at a time when factories and other private sector businesses are less likely to be unionized.  Overall union membership rates are about 10.7% with public sector union membership at 34%.
  2. In the workforce overall, private sector workers outnumber government employees more than 5-1.  But the number of private sector union members nearly matches the number in the public sector.  The union membership rate among federal workers, who can’t be compelled to pay union fees, is lower than the rate for other levels of government.
  3. The proposed Employee Rights Act would require re-certification every 3 years or each time the workforce turns over by at least 50% at the end of a collective bargaining agreement.  The bill would create accountability while shining a light on the union complaint of free riders in right to work states.  The claim is that unions are forced to represent nonmembers who pay no dues.
  4. Re-certification elections would make it clear whether these workers are truly free riders who never wanted to join the union in the first place.  In Wisconsin, where Act 10 requires re-certification, more than 100 unions chose not to seek re-certification because they lacked sufficient support.
  5. Although unions complain about the free rider problem, it isn’t clear they want it gone.  The Supreme Court ruled twice that unions are free to represent only dues paying members.  Yet, most insist on negotiating as the exclusive representatives of all employees.
  6. The United Federation of Teachers organized New York public school teachers in 1961, meaning no current teacher voted for the union.  Just 1% of teachers in Florida’s 10 largest school districts were on the job when their schools were unionized.
  7. As of 2015, only 6% of unionized private employees had ever voted to organize, according to National Labor Relations Board data.  The United Auto Workers organized Ford, GM and Chrysler plants between 1936 and 1941.  The UAW has never had to win new employees support.
  8. That’s about to change.  Florida became the third state to enact a law requiring teachers unions to stand for re-certification.  Specifically, if less than half the bargaining unit chooses to maintain membership, the certification process starts over.  The union must then collect signatures from 30% of the unit and then win a secret ballot election.
  9. Iowa passed an even broader measure last year.  All government unions must now win re-certification before each new contract negotiation, typically every 2-3 years.  Wisconsin accomplished the same thing with Act 10 in 2011.  Michigan, Missouri and Oklahoma are considering similar measures.
  10. The Supreme Court is considering the Janus vs. Afscme case in which some state workers are arguing they shouldn’t be required to support collective bargaining positions with which they disagree.  The workers must pay $44.58 each month to support union political advocacy.  A decision is expected this summer.
  11. If the Supreme Court rules for the plaintiffs, it won’t be a death blow to government unions, though they might have to prioritize resources and reduce political spending.  After Michigan passed its right to work law in 2012, the state teachers union lost about 25% of its members.  Public unions exist in 28 states with right to work laws.


There is no question that private and public sector unions are feeling membership pressures from the expansion of right to work states, other actions by states to require re-certification, the potential for a new federal law requiring re-certification and the Supreme Court case.  Is it time for a reconsideration of union power and to replace it with individual choice as to whether or not to join a union and pay dues?  Should Congress pass the Employee Rights Act?  Should other states follow the lead of Florida and Iowa to require re-certification?  Should the Supreme Court rule for the plaintiffs?  What is the “Right Thing to do?”  It is time for the states and federal government to curtail the power of the unions, especially public sector unions.  The change is long overdue and would protect both workers and taxpayers from coercive government union monopolies.  The Supreme Court, by deciding for the plaintiffs, would actually provide protection to individual public employees nationwide.  The Employee Rights Act should be passed.  The re-certification law is needed if today’s workers are to have the same right to vote on unionization their predecessors had decades ago.  It is the “Right to Choose!”