What’s wrong with “right-to-work”?
The Labor Record – 1999 Martin Maddaloni
Harry Truman was a great president because he was a down-to-earth person who believed in straight talk and could recognize a lie when he saw it. What did he think about so-called “right-to-work laws?” “You will find some people saying that they are for the so-called ‘right-to- work’ law, but they also believe in unions. This is absurd. It’s like saying you are for motherhood but against children,” he said in 1947.
More than 50 years later proponents of “right-to-work” are still peddling their snake oil tonic by promising individual liberty and economic progress. Nothing could be further from the truth. “Right-to-work” is a lie. It has nothing to do with your right to have a job or economic growth. The fact is “right-to- work” doesn’t protect or create a single job and it certainly doesn’t provide any meaningful employment rights. Under Section 14-B of the Taft-Hartley Act, an amendment to federal labor law that was passed in 1947, states are allowed to pass a so- called “right-to-work” law that bars unions from negotiating union security clauses. “Right-to-work” gives a free ride to workers who enjoy the wages and benefits of a collective bargaining agreement because they can not be asked to pay all of the costs of union representation. Unions, on the other hand, are required by federal law to represent everyone covered by the contract whether or not they help pay for negotiating or enforcing the agreement. The obvious real purpose of “right-to-work” is to weaken unions and undermine collective bargaining. In reality, the “right-to- work” is the right to be paid lower wages. Just take a look at the facts: In 1996, the annual average pay in free collective bargaining states was $29,100, compared with $24,600 in right-to-work states-an 18 percent difference. “Right-to- work” states also have lower “union density” (the percentage of workers who belong to unions) – 7.6 percent, compared with 16.8 percent in free states.
Compared to free states, “right-to-work” states consistently rank at the bottom of national spending on such worker protections as education, unemployment insurance and workers comp and high in jobless rates, poverty and job fatalities. “Right-to- work” laws are a bad deal for workers because they restrict workers’ right to union representation and lower the average pay of all workers. It’s that simple. The anti-union roots of “right-to-work” run deep. The National Association of Manufacturers originally started the anti-union, open shop movement in 1905 to combat unions. Later during the 1920’s and 1930’s, it became known as the “American Plan,” an aggressive employer effort to stamp out unions. The modern “right-to-work” movement was started by southern business leaders who for years tried to hide their corporate backing. Today the main front group is a right-wing organization called the National Right To Work Committee (NRTWC) which is funded and controlled by anti-union business executives. A court suit brought against the Committee revealed that more than 80 percent of its contributions come from business and corporate sources. Headquartered in Virginia since the early 1990’s, the NRTWC and its legal foundation receive annual contributions of more than $9 million to fight and harass unions.
Unfortunately, the “right-to-work” issue has become identified with the two political parties, opposed by Democrats and supported by Republicans. Labor’s challenge must be to convince more Republicans, particularly good union members who are Republicans, to change their party’s position on this clearly anti-union issue. In Colorado, for example, UA members are a big part of labor’s fight against “right-to-work. ” A “right-to-work (for less)” bill recently passed out of the state House on a straight party line vote. Not one Republican voted with labor on this critical issue. But the Colorado AFL-CIO reports there is a light at the end of this tunnel.
In the Senate, House Bill 1263 was assigned to the Business Affairs and Labor Committee where the AFL- CIO believes it has the votes to “kill” the bill outright with the support of some Republicans so that it won’t even get to the Senate floor for a full Senate vote. With only a few weeks left in the session, the issue should be dead this year. But the state AFL-CIO expects that union members will probably have to go through it all again next year because newly elected Republican Governor Bill Owens backs “right-to-work,” showing yet another link between political action and collective bargaining.
In a perfect example of the mumbo-jumbo that Harry Truman hated, Gov. Owens recently wrote the state AFL- CIO: “Just as I believe workers should have the right to freely join or support the labor organization of their choice, I also believe workers should have the right to refrain from supporting or joining a labor organization, without fear of penalty or reprisal. Therefore, I support right-to-work legislation.” Workers should not be fooled by his words of “support” or “rights.” As the state AFL-CIO declared, “His form letter is nothing but a play on words, designed to misinform and mislead. ” Owens and his kind believe Colorado should be more like the neighboring “right-to- work” states of Kansas, Nebraska, Wyoming, Utah and Arizona where the standard of living is lower. Hourly pay in Colorado now ranks among the best in the country, far out distancing that of its neighboring right-to-work states. Annual personal income in the surrounding right-to-work states is about $2,000 lower than in Colorado. The state federation further estimates that Colorado businesses would lose more than $2 billion a year in consumer purchasing power if it passes. Yet, many small businesses are among those who naively support “right- to-work.”
More insidious is often overlooked racial underside of “right-to-work.” For minorities, union membership has always presented a path to economic and social empowerment The NRTW was born out of the segregated South by wealthy white business leaders who wanted to prevent the spread of unionism. Florida, for example, is the only state with “right-to- work” written into its constitution which was done in the mid-1940’s as a way to get around federal law which at that time did not allow states to adopt “right-to-work.” “Until the 1960’s there were sharp racial differences here,” explains Robert Zieger, distinguished professor of labor history at the University of Florida. “The historic disenfranchisement of African-American voters has affected the union movement statewide. One has to wonder whether the right-to-work would have passed in 1944 if that were not the case.”
“Right-to- work” is the wrong labor and economic policy for our nation. Because union security is vital to the finances of a labor organization to operate, “right-to-work” laws represent a state-sanctioned policy of union suppression. And, as certain as the sun will rise tomorrow, “right-to-work” laws translate into lower wages and benefits, a declining standard of living and substandard legal protections for workers. Union members must remain vigilant to stop “right- to-work” in free states and continue to push for repeal of these anti-union laws in the 21 states where they exist. As the great Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., once proclaimed: “In our glorious fight for civil rights, we must guard against being fooled by false slogans, as ‘right- to-work.’ It provides no ‘rights’ and no ‘works.’ It’s purpose is to destroy labor unions and the freedom of collective bargaining … We must demand that this fraud be stopped.”