What Should Be Said: Why Shouldn’t I Have the Right to Leave A Union?

What they said: Right to Work is Wrong for Missouri 

In Missouri, union-backed opponents of the state’s new Right to Work law argue it’s an “unfair government overreach” and “politicians interfering in the workplace.” Voters will have a choice in November’s election to uphold or reject the law, but union leaders and their allies are twisting the language of freedom in advance.

“This referendum stops corrupt politicians and the corporate special interests from trying to micro-manage the private sector and interfere with contracts negotiated between employees and employers,” Missouri AFL-CIO President Mike Louis told the St. Louis Labor Tribune. “This referendum will guarantee that employers in Missouri can decide for themselves how to run their businesses and reach agreements with their employees without government intervention.”

The Labor Tribune bills itself as “one of America’s oldest and most respected labor newspapers.” It supported Louis’ position, saying, “RTW isn’t about a worker’s right to join the union or not, or pay dues, or not. It’s about a concerted right wing-GOP-business campaign to defund unions, thus destroying resistance to the corporate-radical right agenda.”

Here’s the question you should be asking: How can unions say I have the right to join their union, but not the right to leave it?

Unions talk a lot — as they should — about workers’ rights. And sometimes those rights do need protection against abuses. But when it comes to this particular right, Louis and his pro-labor journalist allies are on the wrong side of the debate. While they may think they can convince Missourians to overturn the law at the ballot box by appealing to principles of limited government, what they’re trying to hide is that they want to return Missouri to a model where its government is actively restricting workers’ rights rather than protecting them.

That’s because a state government doesn’t show up at a business and begin interfering when a Right to Work law is passed. Rather, these laws give workers back the final, obvious right that had been taken away from them by existing labor laws: The right not to associate with a union.

That’s what Right to Work laws restore. And it shouldn’t be a foreign concept to labor leaders, since it’s a right they used to recognize. In 1918, founding AFL President Samuel Gompers said,

There may be here and there a worker who for certain reasons unexplainable to us does not join a union of labor. This is his right, no matter how morally wrong he may be. It is his legal right, and no one can or dare question his exercise of that legal right.

Today’s AFL-CIO celebrates Gompers as a founding icon, “…it is to him, as much as to anyone else, that the American labor movement owes its structure and characteristic strategies.” But somewhere between Gompers and today’s leaders like Louis, the AFL-CIO went past questioning the exercise of that right to flatly denying it exists, as their “Your Rights to Unionize” website now shows, 

Examples of employee rights include:

  • Forming, or attempting to form, a union in your workplace;
  • Joining a union whether the union is recognized by your employer or not;
  • Assisting a union in organizing your fellow employees;
  • Refusing to do any or all of these things; and
  • Having the right to be fairly represented by a union.

You have the right to form a union, join a union and organize a union or not, today’s AFL-CIO says. However, you only have the right to be “fairly represented by the union,” not to refuse that representation. Even if you exercise your right not to be a union member, you’re still bound by the contract they negotiate as much as any other worker and you still have to pay for the privilege of that representation.

That’s like saying you can choose not to belong to a church, but you’ll still have to go to its services, put money in the collection plate and live your life by its rules — but they’ll let you skip the ice cream social.

This is a violation of fundamental American constitutional principles of freedom of association. It fails the basic test of history and reason when it comes to the concept of rights, which is that the right to do something must include the right not to do it:

  • Our freedom of religion includes the right not to practice any religion.
  • Our freedom of speech includes the right not to speak.
  • We can exercise our freedom of assembly by choosing to stay home by ourselves.
  • Nobody is forcing you to go out and exercise your right to vote.

That’s why a right to collectively organize in and be represented by a union must include the right not to do so. Your right to associate with a union must include the right not to associate. That’s the “right” behind “Right to Work,” despite what the St. Louis Labor Tribune says.

Right to Work isn’t government overreach. It’s government doing its job.

In addition to the “government intervention” rhetoric from Louis, the “We Are MO” ballot group his union supports calls the state’s Right to Work law, “…an unnecessary, unfair government overreach into the workplace that distracts from the real issues like creating jobs and improving schools.”

But restoring the right of workers to exercise their freedom of association is exactly the sort of thing we have government to do. That’s such a basic American concept that it’s the first thing we said as a nation, in the Declaration of Independence:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. That to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.

Government securing the rights of individuals isn’t overreach and it isn’t unnecessary. It is, as Thomas Jefferson and his colleagues felt compelled to explain to King George III before getting into more practical matters, the entire purpose of having a government in the first place. The State of Missouri protecting the rights of its workers to choose whether or not to act collectively is about as legitimate a role for government as there is, and it’s a shame that it’s union leaders like Mike Louis from whom those workers need to be protected.


John C. Mozena is a communicator working to spread liberty and free markets. He has been a vice president at a free-market think tank, spent two decades in a variety of private-sector marketing and communications roles and began his career as a newspaper reporter and editor covering health care policy. Follow him on Twitter or visit his website.


What Should Be Said is a project of Think Freely Media that shows effective ways of communicating freedom principles by using a storytelling approach, taking the moral high ground, and staying hopeful and aspirational. Media, politicians and thought leaders often fail to include the freedom perspective at all by omitting critical facts. Alternatively, when they do make a sincere attempt to sell the freedom philosophy, they often do so with a stale and defensive approach that is missing stories that humanize the dry facts and figures. Here we show examples of how storytelling and emotionally compelling changes in message will make all the difference for those trying to advocate for liberty.


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