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The Question We Should Ask About Wisconsin Teacher Unions

Under Governor Scott Walker’s Act 10, passed in 2010, unions in Wisconsin must be recertified every year. They do this by conducting a vote of the workers and at least 50% must vote in the affirmative for the union to receive recertification. Before Walker, Wisconsin was one of many states that required union membership for employees to work. They didn’t have a choice. If they wanted to work in an industry with a union, they had to join the union. Walker eliminated that law with Act 10 (known as a right-to-work law).

Requiring workers to join a union may seem ridiculous at first, but it solves a very difficult problem: free riding. Without such a law, many workers would choose not to join a union, but would still benefit from its representation. The union would negotiate for everyone, but not everyone would pay dues. This incentives workers to forego membership and reap the benefits. But as more and more people rationally choose to free ride, the union becomes weaker and weaker. Eventually it has no power and the workers all lose. That’s why big business is such a big proponent of right-to-work laws. They destroy unions.

So it’s not surprising to find out that in the aftermath of Act 10, teachers unions are falling apart in Wisconsin:

Today, teachers in Kenosha, Wis., voted to decertify their union, the Kenosha Education Association, by a margin of nearly two to one. Only 37 percent of the teachers opted to retain the union in an election made possible by the labor reforms enacted under Gov. Scott Walker (R). The result goes to show that when workers have a choice on whether to join a union instead of being forced into one by law, they often choose to vote down the union.

That’s from the Competitive Enterprise Institute (CEI), a conservative organization focused on limited government, but it misses the most important question: did workers vote to decertify because they didn’t want a union or because they wanted to free ride off others? It’s not a surprise at all that unions are falling part. That was guaranteed to happen. The question is whether it’s because of free riding or not. Town Hall’s Mary Katherine Ham runs through a bunch of stories celebrating the fall of Wisconsin unions, but none poses this important question either.

I’m more sympathetic to the right-to-work argument than most liberals I know. I cringe at the idea that in order to be a teacher in many states, you must join the union. But I also understand that such rules solve the practical problem of free riding. The evidence is pretty solid that right-to-work laws weaken unions, but if workers would rather that be the case, then I certainly respect their freedom to choose that. But if most workers value unions and are not joining just so that they can free ride, then laws requiring union membership make a lot of sense. That’s what we need to figure out in Wisconsin, but no one is asking the right question.

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