The state of Indiana has just enacted a government regulation on business that business seems to love – ‘right to work’. A ‘Right to Work’ law forbids a business and a labor organization from signing a contract that requires all employees to join the union as a condition of their employment. Indiana businesses will still be permitted to establish whatever rules they prefer for their employees when it comes to uniforms, tattoos, smoking, and the like – but not when it comes to union membership.
Ordinarily, in America, we let two contracting parties agree to whatever terms they like, unless they are conspiring to commit a serious injustice. The government intervenes to prevent employers from discriminating on the basis of race, religion and gender, for instance. It’s hard for me, at least, to see how ‘not wanting to pay union dues when a majority of my coworkers have voted for union representation’ is equivalent to any of these. It’s not an immutable characteristic like race and gender, and I suspect few would argue that it is comparable in depth and gravity to a religious commitment. One might contend that since unions sometimes participate in political action, an obligation to pay union dues might mean forcing an individual to support viewpoints they oppose. However, the law already empowers union members to demand rebates of the portion of dues used in political activity.
Unlike collective bargaining, Catholic Social Teaching does not express an explicit position on ‘right to work.’ What’s more remarkable to me is the position taken by business leaders and others who seem to object to every regulation of business practices except this one – here they call upon government to tell them they can’t do something. As a practical matter, right-to-work makes it very difficult for unions to exist, since individuals can enjoy the wages and benefits negotiated by unions without paying for them. (If Indiana required McDonald’s to give away free hamburgers to those who asked, how long would the paying customers continue paying? I suspect in such a case the Golden Arches wouldn’t be long for this world.) I have to wonder if weakening unions, rather than protecting individual rights, is the real motivation behind ‘right to work’ campaigns.