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With all eyes on Trump, Republicans are planning to break unions for good Michael Paarlberg
A so-called ‘right to work’ bill going through Congress will starve unions of funding, leaving workers at the mercy of their bosses and politicians
Alternative facts are nothing new; politicians have been making stuff up since they first crawled out of the primordial swamp. One of the most successful lies in modern US politics has been that of “right to work” laws, which break unions under the guise of protecting workers, one of which was introduced in Congress on Wednesday afternoon and will probably break unions in the country for good. A national right to work law has been a pipe dream of corporate lobbyists, the chamber of commerce, the Koch brothers, and the politicians on their payroll for decades, and is about to become a reality. Right to work laws already exist in more than half the states in the country, where unions are weak or nonexistent, wages are correspondingly low, and workers are correspondingly disposable. In theory, these laws are about guaranteeing workers’ freedom of association. In practice, they’re about keeping workers from forming unions, by making unions financially unsustainable.
The main lie told by right to work proponents is that such laws put an end to “compulsory union membership”. It’s flat-out false; there is no such thing, and hasn’t been since 1947, when the Taft Hartley Act made the closed shop – a type of contract where union membership was a condition of employment – illegal. Nowhere in the US, whether you’re in a right to work state or not, can you be forced to be a member of a union, or fired for refusing to join one. The second lie is that such laws protect workers from having their dues money go to political causes they don’t support. Nowhere in the country can you be forced to donate to a politician, campaign or political organization you don’t support. If you’re a dues-paying union member, you already have a right to simply not donate to your union’s political fund, and plenty of union members exercise it.
What right to work laws, including this bill, do is outlaw a specific type of voluntary, private employment contract that employers and employees may agree on. Under this agency shop contract, which must be voted on and approved by a majority of employees, workers agree to pay a fair share provision – a fraction of the dues amount that union members pay – to cover the costs of bargaining and enforcing the workplace contract. The reason such contracts exist at all is because, under the same 1947 law that banned compulsory union membership, unions are bound by what are called “duties of fair representation”. Under DFRs, they are legally required to provide the same services to everyone in a workplace, such as filing grievances, providing legal counsel, or defending someone if they’re disciplined, whether they are union members or not.
This also assures that everyone gets the same benefits from a union contract: health insurance, vacations, rules that say your boss can’t just fire you if he wakes up one day and decides he doesn’t like your face. The idea is to prevent unions from discriminating against those who choose not to join. Obviously, if you’re going to receive a benefit automatically whether you join or not, the incentive is to free-ride. Agency shop contracts are set up to make sure everyone shares the costs so that those grievances get filed. Right to work laws encourage everyone to free-ride until the union is broke, can’t provide those benefits to anyone, and eventually ceases to exist.
Right to work proponents often point to the money unions throw at politicians, mostly Democrats, as justification for starving unions financially. But right to work laws don’t defund political activities, because no worker is compelled to fund them in the first place. The only union functions this law will defund are things like contract bargaining and grievance filing: precisely those everyday workplace activities that Republicans say unions should be restricted to doing.
It bears repeating: the contracts this law will ban are voluntary and agreed on democratically. They are not imposed on anyone by the government, the union or the company. Normally, outlawing a voluntary business contract between private parties is the kind of thing Republicans consider government meddling. And there’s something distinctly unconservative about forcing an institution to provide benefits to non-paying non-members while encouraging them to freeload. But if it’s about crushing unions, they always manage to find an excuse.
Certainly bill sponsors Steve King and Joe “You Lie” Wilson would never let ideological consistency get in the way of an opportunity to crush their opponents. Nor would President Trump, who was elected promising to fight for American workers. Unions are, after all, the only real vehicle for workers to defend their interests, whether in the workplace or the political arena. Taking that away from them leaves workers at the mercy of their bosses and politicians. Which is the whole point, and the only thing this law was ever designed to do.
Deceptive Right to Work Laws Hurt Everyone
By many measures, quality of life is worse in states with right to work laws. Wages are lower, people are less likely to have health insurance and the necessary resources for a quality education, poverty levels are higher as are workplace fatality rates.
States with Right to Work Laws Have Lower Wages and Incomes
On average, workers in states with right to work laws make $6,109 a year (12.1%) less annually than workers in other states ($44,401, compared with $50,511).1
Median household income in states with these laws is $8,174 (13.9%) less than in other states ($50,712 vs. $58,886).2
29.6 percent of jobs in right to work states were in low-wage occupations, compared with 22.8% of jobs in other states.3
States with Right to Work Laws Have Lower Rates of Health Insurance Coverage
People under the age of 65 in states with right to work laws are more likely to be uninsured (13.0%, compared with 9.4% in free-bargaining states).4
Only 47% of private-sector employers in states with these laws offer insurance coverage to their employees, compared with 52.2% in other states.5 That difference is even more pronounced among employers with fewer than 50 workers: only 30.1% offer health insurance compared with 38.1% of small employers in other states.6
Workers in right to work states also pay a larger share of their health insurance premiums, on average, than those in free-bargaining states (28.5% of the premium compared with 25.4% in free-bargaining states).7
States with Right to Work Laws Have Higher Poverty and Infant Mortality Rates
Poverty rates are higher in states with right to work laws (15.3% overall and 21.4% for children), compared with poverty rates of 12.8% overall and 18.0% for children in states without these laws.8
The infant mortality rate is 12.4% higher in states with right to work laws.9
States with Right to Work Laws Invest Less in Education
States with right to work laws spend 32.5% less per pupil on elementary and secondary education than other states.10
States with Right to Work Laws Have Higher Workplace Fatality Rates
The rate of workplace deaths is 49% higher in states with right to work laws, according to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.11
1 Bureau of Labor Statistics, Quarterly Census of Employment and Wages (all industries, all establishments, average annual pay), 2014 data. Numbers are rounded ($50,510.58 and $44,401.17).
2 U.S. Census Bureau, Table H-8. Median Household Income by State: 1984 to 2014.
3 CFED, Asset and Opportunity Scorecard, Low Wage Jobs, 2013.
4 Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation, Health Insurance Coverage of Nonelderly 0–64.
5 Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation, Percent of Private Sector Establishments that Offer Health Insurance to their Employees, 2013.
6 Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation, Percent of Private Sector Establishments That Offer Health Insurance to their Employees, by firm size, 2013.
7 CFED, Employee Share of the Premium, 2014.
8 U.S. Census Bureau, POV46: Poverty Status by State: 2014 Below 100% and 50% of Poverty — All Ages; POV46: Poverty Status by State: 2014 Below 100% and 50% of Poverty — People Under 18 Years of Age, Weighted Person Count.
9 Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation, Infant Mortality Rates (deaths per 1,000 live births), 2013.
10 National Education Association, Ranking & Estimates - Rankings of the States 2015 and Estimates of School Statistics 2016, Table H-11. Current Expenditures for Public K-12 Schools Per Student in Fall Enrollment, 2014-15 ($). Note: Wisconsin was excluded from the free-bargaining states vs. right to work state analysis for education spending because the state enacted its right to work law in 2015. The impact of right to work policies would not have been fully experienced in the 2014–2015 school year. In addition, West Virginia is included as a free bargaining state in this analysis of 2014–2015 school year data because the state passed right to work legislation in 2016.
11 Bureau of Labor Statistics, National Census of Fatal Occupational Injuries in 2014.
What Would a Country Without Labor Unions Look Like?by David Macaray
What would a country without unions look like? Before answering, we should clarify labor’s role, both historically and presently. The purpose of a labor union is and always has been to raise the standard of living for working people. Simple as that. And by “standard of living” we mean wages, benefits, and working conditions, all of which are acknowledged by federal labor law to be legitimate topics for discussion in collective bargaining.
Of course, anti-labor propagandists like to pretend that unions are cesspools of greed, corruption and ineptitude, and that the only things they care about are consolidating power and living high on the hog off the membership’s monthly dues. That’s the rancid and misleading version of unions they try to peddle. Unfortunately, misleading version or not, many people believe it.
Take my case, for example. I was president of a local union for nine one-year terms, representing 700 employees at a Fortune 500 manufacturing plant. Although we were hard-working, dedicated employees, we were also a fairly militant union who wasn’t averse to going on strike when the company got stingy. Hard-working employees and frisky union members…a perfect combination.
Monthly dues were roughly $30, and my salary during my first term was $100 per month. By the end of my ninth and final term, it had risen to $150. Admittedly, compared to the salaries of local presidents across the country, mine was probably on the low side. The average was closer to $200. Still, even at $200, no local president was living large.
If there were no unions, working people would have no means of resistance. Obviously, having no means of resistance is tantamount to having no leverage, and without leverage—without some form of bargaining power—we become sheep. If there were no unions, the arrangement would devolve into your classic “buyers’ market,” with management in the driver’s seat, and working men and women along for the ride.
Historically, market forces tend to push wages downward. If there was no union apparatus to prop up wages, working people would find themselves more or less in free-fall, eventually dropping all the way down to the federal minimum wage of $7.25 per hour (which, if you worked 8 hours a day, 40 hours a week, 52 weeks a year, and never missed a day, pencils out to $15,080 per year).
As for the minimum wage, a significant portion of the Republican Party, along with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, would like to repeal it, believing the minimum wage to be an “artificial constraint,” and the people who rely on it to be more or less “takers,” too afraid or too lazy to take their chances in a free and open market.
Virtually every industry in the country—from bottle cap manufacturers, to cauliflower growers, to guided missile makers—has lobbyists or trade organizations representing their interests. What do working men and women have in the way of lobbyists? Other than unions, nothing. Other than unions, nothing and no one.
Indeed, even with unions, they usually find themselves out-manned, out-spent, and out-gunned, which is why the accusations of unions being “too powerful” are so ludicrous. People have actually said to me with a straight face, “Unions were necessary back in the old days, but now they’ve gotten too powerful.”
Really? Too powerful? Here’s a stunning fact: Only about 7-percent of all private sector jobs are unionized. Consider that figure. Seven-percent!! That means that 93-percent of all private sector jobs in the United States are non-union. Yet anti-union propagandists continue to portray organized labor has this gigantic, rampaging monolith.
It’s no wonder that statistics show the American middle-class continuing to disintegrate at an alarming rate, and the top 2-percent continuing to get richer every year. The fact that the rich are getting richer makes eminent sense when you consider that, without any resistance, everything is going to be funneled upwards. Why wouldn’t it? Think of the phenomenon as “reverse gravity.”
Moreover, if there were suddenly no unions, even those well-paying non-union jobs out there would soon decline in quality as well. Why? Because with America’s businesses no longer having to compete with union wages, benefits, and working conditions, they would be free to jettison whatever the hell they wanted, and the whole enterprise would quickly become a race to the bottom.
Again, this is all about leverage. It’s all about resistance and maintaining a healthy standard of living, and it’s all about our once vaunted middle-class being systematically assaulted and bled-out, and the country being transformed into one vast gladiatorial arena where everyone is treated as either a winner or loser.
In the 1950s, the U.S. was prosperous, optimistic, and buoyant with confidence. During that period union membership was a staggering 34-percent. Today, we’re struggling, polarized, and pessimistic. And union membership barely moves the needle.
Yet you still hear people—not just conservative pundits and free market fundamentalists, but regular working folks—blame the unions for our problems. It’s true. Regular, good-hearted working folks are now hostile to the only institution capable of representing their interests. How bizarre is that?
David Macaray, a Los Angeles playwright and author (“It’s Never Been Easy: Essays on Modern Labor,” 2nd Edition), was a former union rep. He can be reached at email@example.com
Kirsten Shonle, Portland Steward, volunteering at the Common Ground Fair Labor/Political Action booth.
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