M.D. Harmon: Ending forced union dues should be "high on list of pressing issues" for GOP


The worldview that says it’s a good idea to force others to contribute to private causes that they oppose appears to be more popular in Maine than in many other places.

The current example is a bill submitted to the Legislature last year that was held over to the present session and came up for a public hearing April 4: LD 309, an anti-forced-unionism measure otherwise known as a “right-to-work” law.

Such laws are hardly unique; they are found in 23 states, most of them in the Rockies, the Midwest and the South. The most recent state to pass an RTW law was Indiana, which barred unions from charging fees to unwilling workers in February.

Yet, no Northeast state has such a statute, probably because unions are particularly strong above the Mason-Dixon line and east of the Great Lakes. But “strong” is a relative term; union membership as a percentage of the workforce has been declining steadily for decades.

Private-sector unions now represent less than 7 percent of the workforce (unions are more prevalent in the public sector, where 37 percent of workers are represented).

Overall, unions represent 11.8 percent of the workforce, down a tenth of a percentage point from 2010, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported in January. In Maine, 11.1 percent of workers are members of a union or similar association.

The Taft-Hartley Act, which a Democratic president, Harry Truman, signed in 1947, prohibits employers from requiring union membership, and allows states (but not counties or municipalities) to ban compulsory union membership.

And the Supreme Court has held that in states where RTW laws are not in force, workers in union-represented workplaces may decline to pay those portions of union dues that are used for political activities, but may be made to pay “agency fees” that represent the costs of collective bargaining.

These “no free rider” laws are justified by unions on the grounds that such workers benefit from union advocacy and representation, but as has been pointed out by right-to-work defenders, no union has yet backed a law saying that it should be allowed to drop unwilling workers from its purview.

The dispute over such laws has both ideological and practical aspects, with RTW opponents saying such laws are designed to benefit employers by weakening unions as their principal purpose, and that they allow nonunion workers at represented workplaces to profit from wages and benefits negotiated by unions without paying for such representation.

They also point to studies that show that wages and benefit levels are higher in non-RTW states, while defenders of such laws note that business growth levels are higher in RTW states, meaning that more jobs are created there overall, even if employers are compensating those workers less on the average.

In addition, the laws’ defenders say that compulsory dues or fees are a violation of individual rights, forcing workers who do not support unions (which overall are strong supporters of the Democratic Party and liberal legislation having little or nothing to do with employment) to pay them substantial portions of their incomes against their will.

It’s quite possible that both sides are right in all the particulars of their separate arguments, so it all comes down to which set of talking points seems more persuasive.

To me, the assertion that someone else who is not a member of government has an automatic right to allocate the fruits of someone else’s labor is on its face unjust, unless there is prior agreement between the interested parties.

However, we live in a society where some people are perfectly willing to force others to assume such obligations by using the coercive power of government to compel them.

Indeed, they are often willing to force others to take on such obligations while resisting them themselves. (You did know that members of Congress are not covered by Obamacare, didn’t you? And that many unions have been given exemptions from health insurance costs imposed by the new law?)

And unions’ political goals go far beyond membership issues. Unions are the biggest givers to Democrats — which is their right, recently verified by the Supreme Court’s Citizen United decision.

But they assert they should also have the right to force others to finance their political goals, and that is not only unfair, it is dictatorial.

Sadly, on so many issues, Maine’s Republicans appear to be only lukewarm where other states’ conservatives are strong and committed to meaningful reforms. The Press Herald story this week advancing Wednesday’s hearing cited Rep. Kerri Prescott of Topsham, House chair of the Labor, Commerce, Research and Economic Development Committee, as saying she supported LD 309, but it wasn’t “high on her list of pressing issues.”

And when the hearing took place, majority Republicans refused to even take a recorded vote on the bill, whose future is greatly in doubt. Just like last year.

Too often, conservatives and libertarians have gotten a do-nothing response to things they considered “high on their list of pressing issues,” to the point where they could ask, “How long will the people we elect to represent us shunt our views aside because the fight to achieve them might not be an easy one?”

More importantly, they may also ask, “Why do we continue to elect people who turn their backs on issues of personal liberty whenever they meet opposition from those for whom liberty takes a distant second place to financial gain and increased influence?”

We don’t know yet how this fight will turn out this time around. We do, however, hope that there might still be a fight — and not just a presumptive surrender.

M.D. Harmon, a retired journalist and military officer, is a freelance writer. He can be contacted at

About M.D. Harmon

M.D. Harmon, a retired journalist and military officer, is a freelance writer and speaker. He can be contacted at:

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