UAW boss: Right-to-work doesn’t hurt unions, it helps

By M.D. Kittle | Wisconsin Reporter

MADISON, Wis. — While big labor and the politicians who love their money paint doomsday scenarios should Wisconsin become the nation’s 25th right-to-work state, at least one top national union leader says there is little harm in giving workers the right to choose.

Gary Casteel, secretary-treasurer of the United Auto Workers, said he prefers organizing in a right-to-work environment.

“This is something I’ve never understood, that people think right to work hurts unions,” Casteel said in February, according to a July 1 piece in the Washington Post. “To me, it helps them.”

HURTS SO GOOD: Gary Casteel, secretary-treasurer of the United Auto Workers, has said that he has “never understood” why people think right to work hurts labor unions.

The blog was written by the Post’s labor reporter Lydia DePillis, and headlined “Why Harris v. Quinn isn’t as bad for workers as it sounds.” The U.S. Supreme Court decision put the brakes on compulsory union dues for some home-care employees.

“You don’t have to belong if you don’t want to,” Casteel said. “So if I go to an organizing drive, I can tell these workers, ‘If you don’t like this arrangement, you don’t have to belong.’ Versus, ‘If we get 50 percent of you, then all of you have to belong, whether you like to or not.’ I don’t even like the way that sounds, because it’s a voluntary system, and if you don’t think the system’s earning its keep, then you don’t have to pay.”

Leave it to a big labor guy to crystallize the argument for right-to-work proponents.

Right-to-work laws, now in 24 states, including Michigan, Florida and Indiana, prohibit firing workers for choosing not to join a labor union or pay dues.

It’s about choice, and it’s about the free-market principles of competition, right-to-work backers say. Or as Casteel put it, if the union isn’t “earning it’s keep, then you don’t have to pay.” No more than a consumer would have to pay for one cable TV plan over another or any service deemed too costly or ineffective.

Casteel’s point, at least at the time, was that unions have and can continue to prove their worth to the worker. Fine, say right-to-work proponents, but let the employee ultimately say.

Public-sector employees have weighed in in Wisconsin, where the state’s Act 10 reformed the state’s long-standing and pioneering government collective-bargaining law. Given the choice, public employees by pretty significant numbers have left their unions and their compulsory dues.

The Wisconsin Education Association Council, lost more than a third of its membership, declining from about 98,000 to about 60,000 members following the implementation of the public-sector collective-bargaining reform Act 10 in 2011, according to the Wall Street Journal.

American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Council 24’s dues-paying membership fell from about 5,900 security and safety employee members pre-Act 10 to 690 in the early months of 2013 — an 88 percent drop — according to information obtained by Wisconsin Reporter.

Michigan, the home of the UAW, is just beginning to find out about life after right-to-work. The state became a right-to-work state in 2013, following massive, big labor-led protests at the Capitol in Lansing in late December 2012.

Earlier this fall, the brunt of the 112,000 active educators and school workers in the state’s largest teachers union, the Michigan Education Association, were for the first time able to drop out of the union and stop paying union dues. Many have.

According to a new report out this week, MEA membership declined by more than 5,100 education employees, to 142,555, between Sept. 1, 2012, and Aug. 31, 2013.

The report, published in the Detroit Free Press, shows MEA dues rose $5 between 2013 and 2014. Still, the union reported a negative net asset total of nearly $135 million.

Despite the changes and challenges, one fact remained the same: MEA’s top bosses got another round of big raises.

MEA President Steven B. Cook’s gross salary climbed 11 percent, or $20,446, to $203,144, according to the report. Vice President Nancy Strachan booked a 16-percent raise, with her gross salary up $20,097, to $144,700. And Secretary-Treasurer Rick Trainor’s gross salary soared by $48,385, to $158,296.

Union membership in 2013 rose slightly overall, making up about 16 percent of workers in Michigan. But the jury still is out. UAW has existing contracts with the Detroit’s Big Three automakers until September 2015, when the new agreements will no longer allow compulsory union dues.

You won’t find the UAW’s Casteel boldly talking about competing in right-to-work states much these days. He made his comments as director of UAW Region 8, representing a large swath of the South, including Tennessee, where he was engaged in a bitter battle to organize a Volkswagen plant in Chattanooga.

Now, Casteel mainly talks about those “right-wing extremists” trying to break the backs of American organized labor by laws ending forced unionism.

couple months after Casteel was elected secretary-treasurer at the UAW’s 36th Constitutional Convention in Las Vegas, the union boss lamented how the big business-backed right “try to thwart workers’ efforts at every turn …”

“(W)hether it’s making it virtually impossible for unions to collect the resources they need to bargain (as Gov. Scott Walker did to state workers in Wisconsin) or passing dishonest right to work laws that pretend to uphold democracy, but in truth are just their attempt to pit workers against one another,” Casteel wrote in his “Clear View blog. “I’m sure they are not out of ideas, but I am equally sure that we are up to the task of exposing their agenda and building a stronger union through the process.”

The Washington Post asked the question that Casteel once answered: “So is it really such a terrible thing for unions to have to demonstrate their value convincingly enough for workers to want to join?”

Now the question is, will Casteel and the UAW compete to earn their keep, or will they continue to fight for their long-held system of compulsory revenue streams?

Rob Port is the editor of SayAnythingBlog.com, a columnist for the Forum News Service, and host of the Plain Talk Podcast which you can subscribe to by clicking here.

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