by Chris Townsend, UE Political Action Director
The 2012 state legislative season is beginning, and just as expected, we are being hit with so-called "right-to-work" (RTW) legislation in several states, starting with Indiana and New Hampshire. On January 25, the Indiana House of Representatives passed a "right-to-work" bill despite the determined opposition - including big demonstrations - by Indiana unionists. The Indiana State Senate approved the bill on February 1 and Gov. Mitch Daniels is expected to sign it very soon. This was a terrible defeat for working people in Indiana, but make no mistake: This is a nationwide corporate attack on unions, and every state is on the target lost.
WHAT IS "RIGHT TO WORK"?
First of all, you need to know that so-called "right-to-work" laws have nothing to do with helping anybody find a job or providing anyone with job security. If you are not covered by a union contract, the boss can fire you for any reason, or for no reason. "Right to work" is instead a deceptive Madison Avenue-style advertising slogan, dreamed up by big business in the late 1940s, to hide the real intent of anti-union legislation. A "right-to-work" law says that it is illegal, in that particular state, for any union contract to include a clause requiring workers to join the union (that's called "union shop") or to pay representation fees to the union as the bargaining agent (called an "agency shop" clause.) Unions negotiate union shop or agency shop clauses because we know the union is stronger when everyone participates in the union, or at least supports the union financially.
In its essence, RTW is an attack on the financial health and organizational stability of unions. By cutting a union's only source of income - the dues and fees paid by the workers the union represents - it aims to weaken unions so they are less able to defend and improve workers' wages and benefits. That is why big corporations, the Chamber of Commerce and other employer groups lobby so hard for "right to work." These bosses will never have to pay union dues, but they do have to pay the wages and benefits that unions negotiate. They know that if they can weaken or destroy unions, they'll pay a lot less and therefore make bigger profits.
While the initial "right-to-work" attacks of 60 years ago were aimed at the private sector unions, as public sector unions have gained strength, they have also found themselves in the crosshairs. During the widespread assaults on public sector unions in 2011, Republicans put RTW bills on the legislative agenda in many states.
It all goes back to 1947, when an anti-union Republican Congress passed the Taft-Hartley Act, which amended the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) to tilt the law in favor of big business. One provision of Taft-Hartley gave permission to individual states to pass so-called "right-to-work" laws, which make union membership completely voluntary in union-represented workplaces.
So Taft-Hartley - a federal law - allows state legislatures to pass state "right-to-work" laws that nullify the union shop or agency shop clauses of union contracts. Keep in mind that even under "right-to-work", federal labor law still requires unions in the private sector to bargain for all the workers in the bargaining unit, and to represent any worker who wants to file a grievance. State labor laws covering the public sector generally also require the union to represent all workers in the bargaining unit, whether an individual worker is paying for representation or not. So "right to work" is really a right to freeload - giving workers who are represented by a union the "right" to enjoy the benefits of the union without paying a penny.
So let's be clear: "right-to-work" legislation interferes with our ability to freely negotiate with our employers, and overrides what many of us have had in our contracts for many years. The very same "free-market conservative" politicians who say they want to end "big government" interference and regulation of the private-sector economy, now want the government to dictate what you can or cannot negotiate in your labor contract. Isn't this the ultimate in "big government" sticking its nose where it does not belong?
One can imagine that someday they'll take this idea a step further, and pass laws that stop unions in the private sector from negotiating over wages, healthcare, pensions, or discipline and discharge. (As we know, in several states they've already passed such laws restricting or ending collective bargaining rights for public sector unions.)
RIGHT TO WORK FOR LESS
Once Taft-Hartley went into effect in 1947, there was a rush of mostly Southern and some Western states to pass these laws. Unions in these states were already weak, workers toiled for poverty-level wages, and their state legislatures were dominated by corporate interests and, in many cases, hardcore "Jim Crow" racists. Today there are 22 " right-to-work states", Oklahoma being the last to fall victim in 2001. In RTW states workers earn on average $5,000 per year less than in states that allow union shop. None of the 22 RTW states have average wages above the national average. All have the lowest levels of healthcare and pension coverage for workers. A recent study by the Economic Policy Institute (EPI) also revealed that when a state adopts RTW legislation, workers suffer wage reductions averaging almost $1,500 per year. This is why unions say that "right to work" should be called the "right to work for less." If your state legislature passes a "right-to-work" law, lower wages are coming to your state!
THE REAL AGENDA: UNION DESTRUCTION
If all this isn't bad enough, be aware that the "right-to-work" attack was at its inception, and remains, designed as the first stage of de-unionization. Employers and RTW promoters deny this, which would be good for a laugh if the dangers for workers were not so serious. The process goes like this: The legislature passes a right-to-work bill making union membership "optional" in union workplaces. Employers then covertly and overtly encourage workers to drop out of the union, and discourage new employees from joining in the first place. Pro-company "free riders" are given the run of the workplace and remind co-workers that, if they drop out of the union, they'll still get all the negotiated benefits in the union contract - and free union representation on grievances. Next, the boss stirs up trouble to provoke workers to file lots of grievances, and the union by law has to represent dues-paying members and free riders equally. When a freeloader's grievance is unsuccessful, he or she will be encouraged to file charges against the union alleging inadequate representation. Answering such charges further drains the union's time, money and energy, further debilitating and dividing the union. This is all meant to demoralize and exhaust the local union officers, stewards and loyal union members. When contract negotiation time rolls around, the boss takes advantage of the now-divided workforce by getting a few misguided workers to circulate a petition to decertify the union. If that succeeds, the union is ousted, the union contract is gone, and the boss has unrestrained power over the workforce - which is what almost every big employer wants.
This is the real goal of "right to work" - the right to work under an employer dictatorship. For UE members and all union members, it's important to recognize what's at stake: our wages, health insurance, pensions, decent working conditions, and everything union members have achieved in our workplaces since they were first organized. Our dignity as workers, and our ability to have any say in our future as employees, are in danger.
LET'S GET BUSY!
UE members need to push back against the "right-to-work" fraud, even if it's not on the immediate legislative agenda in your state. From the looks of things, unless your state is already "right-to-work", this fight is coming your way sooner rather than later. So use this moment to get prepared, no matter where you live. The first step is to make sure you know exactly who your state lawmakers are, and how to contact them. Once you have that information, get in touch with your state representatives and state senators, and let them know that you strongly oppose any moves toward "right-to-work" legislation in your state. To find your state lawmakers go to Political Actionpage of the UE website. Once you're there, go to the "Be Heard" box in the right column and enter your zip code to find your lawmakers.
We do not intend to sit by while bosses and Republican politicians - and even some Democrats - peddle nonsense about the "unfairness" of forcing people to pay union dues. It's not unfair at all to require people to pay for the services they're receiving and benefiting from. Likewise, we will not swallow the Republicans' preposterous claim "right-to-work" legislation will somehow magically create jobs. If the "right-to-work" pushers would just admit that their goal is to bust unions and increase profits, we could at least give them credit for being honest. But just as the name "right to work" is a lie, this entire campaign is built on deception and fraud. We have to expose it, and stop it.