By Eric Fruits, Ph.D.
Labor unions exist to improve compensation and working conditions for union membership. Consequently, unions act to increase their own members’ wages and benefits. While unions benefit from increased membership, workers themselves see varied levels of benefit from the services provided by a union. Workers recognize the tradeoff between wage gains, benefits, employment opportunities, working conditions, and the nature of the political activities in which the union engages. The one-size-fits-all nature of a collective bargaining agreement, along with the take-it-or-leave-it vote to approve the agreement, means that many employees are covered by contracts that do not reflect their preferences. The exclusive representation by a single union in collective bargaining unjustly reduces freedom of speech and association for workers and stifles individuals’ ability to negotiate employment agreements in both parties’ economic interests.
Under current collective bargaining practices, employment arrangements are negotiated between an employer and a union acting as exclusive representative for the workers. As a condition of exclusive representation, the union has a duty to fairly represent all workers subject to the collective bargaining agreement. The benefit all employees theoretically gain from this duty of fair representation has been invoked to justify the imposition of agency fees on non-union employees. Janus, however, prohibits public sector unions and employers from collecting agency fees from non-union employees.
Unions could avoid the duty and costs associated with representing members and non-members alike by giving up exclusive representation and allowing additional unions to compete for members. Since each union would represent its own members’ interests, individual unions would escape the obligation to represent the varied interests of other unions’ members or non-union employees. Individual workers would have the freedom to join any one of several competing unions or negotiate directly with his or her employer.
- Research indicates unions exert greater effort to attract and retain members when they are competing with other unions. Competition and the threat of membership “raids” provides an incentive for union leadership to be more responsive to its members’ demands.
- Because of the moderating effect on wages, inter-union competition is expected to be associated with increased employment.
- Evidence points to ambiguous effect of inter-union competition on union membership. In the United States, competition was associated with increased union membership. In New Zealand, the introduction of competition along with the ability for workers to negotiate directly with their employers was associated with decreased union membership.
Empirical analysis indicates states with compulsory collective bargaining in the public sector have higher per-person government spending. This suggests that mandatory collective bargaining may drive up the costs of government. Thus, the elimination of mandatory collective bargaining and the introduction of inter-union competition and freedom of association for public employees may slow the growth of state and local spending.
Inter-union competition and workplace freedom of choice can be implemented via several avenues, including lawsuits challenging exclusive representation on First Amendment grounds, the voiding of “no raiding” pacts, or the implementation of state-level legislation such as Tennessee’s Professional Educators Collaborative Conferencing Act.
Eric Fruits, Ph.D. is president and chief economist at Economics International Corp., a consulting firm specializing in economics, finance, and statistics. He is also Vice President of Research at Cascade Policy Institute and an adjunct professor at Portland State University, where he teaches in the economics department and school of business.