It’s been a rough year for unions. Depending on how this year’s elections go, things could get even worse. On this Labor Day weekend, it seems like a good time to consider one of the biggest threats to unions. From the sound of it, it’s almost communist: “Right to Work.” It really has the ring of something the old State regimes promised the people as a benefit of citizenship, a guaranteed job. The appropriating of this language for precisely the opposite intent is part of the cynical manipulation of leaders of right wing populism. Of course, “Right to Work” laws not only fail to guarantee employment, they reduce the organizing power of laborers to put in place contracts that actually prevent unreasonable terminations. They essentially contribute to the downfall of the very organizations that give workers power, and in the process, they wipe out protections that workers struggled for over a century to establish. By allowing workers to become parasites to unions—allowing them to reap the benefits of union efforts such as collecting bargaining while exempting them from having to pay for the privilege—unions are weakened. For example, since Oklahoma implemented their “Right to Work” laws in 2001, 4.7% of the state’s workers are covered by unions, but only 3.5% are dues-paying members. These unions are still forced to represent their non-paying members. In fact, one stunning reality according to the Minnesota AFL-CIO website is, “Amazingly, nonmembers who are represented by a union can even sue the union if they think it has not represented them well enough!”
Corporations and big business have always hated unions. From the times they hired Pinkerton guards to infiltrate them, protect strikebreakers, and sometimes battle them, to the times when they locked out workers, owners have been against their workers organizing. They have not wanted to concede to terms ranging from 8-hour workdays to 40-hour work weeks, minimum wages, ensuring health and safety measures, and providing fringe benefits. They’ve been reluctant to give up practices like paying workers in company script that had to be used at company stores. As noble as their causes have been, unions themselves have not enjoyed a pristine history, including episodes of violence and corruption, thereby allowing big business to exploit negative incidents to turn public opinion against unions.
But, in the modern era, unions have been run honorably with collective bargaining and the occasional, but rare, strike as the only methods they employ. Still, big business manages to label organized labor as “union thugs.” They are bolstered in their negative portrayal of unions by the media. Research by William Puette examined media from a range of sources, and across the board, he found that media supports big business by characterizing unions poorly. For example, he writes that Hollywood’s portrayal of unions in the media “has been both unrepresentative and virulently negative.” Newspapers and television news programming are no different, offering continuous depictions of unions as corrupt, violent, unreasonable, and exploitative of members to the benefit of union leaders. The messages that people hear from all over are that unions coerce people into becoming members, that they are unnecessary in the modern era, and that they are too prone to go on strike.
The bad press has taken its toll. In 2011, only 11.8% of the nation’s workers were members of unions. In 1983, that percentage was 20.1%. This was down from a peak in the mid-1950s of 35%. The recent attack on public-sector union members is not surprising, because their union membership rate of 37% is five times higher than that of private-sector workers, with a 6.9% rate. If you truly want to break the backs of unions, it is good strategy to start by taking down the public sector unions. Souring public opinion toward public workers who are perceived to earn “more than they should by way of taxpayer dollars” is not just an excellent method of asserting right-wing austerity measures, it also undermines public favorability toward unions themselves. Despite the fact that the US Chamber of Commerce and its many subdivisions has no direct relationship with public union workers, they still work to implement policies like those in Wisconsin that bar public workers from collective bargaining. Their tactic couldn’t be more obvious even if Scott Walker himself hadn’t uttered the words, “Divide and conquer.” They want to squelch private sector unions, and if that means killing off public sector unions first, then by all means, they’ll do it.
The pro-union and anti-union sides battle each other with research findings to try and prove that “Right to Work” laws either benefit or harm workers. The unions and labor studies academics (such as the Economic Policy Institute) provide strong statistical evidence that shows being in a union means having higher wages than not being in a union (median weekly earnings of $938 union versus $729 nonunion). Not only that, wages in the 23 states with “Right to Work” laws are approximately 3.2% lower for workers and healthcare coverage by employers is 2.6% lower overall, regardless of union membership, than they are in states without such laws. From the Minnesota AFL-CIO website, we learn, “According to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the rate of workplace deaths is 52.9% higher in states with Right-to-Work laws.”
The U.S. Chamber of Commerce counters with studies that it interprets in questionable ways. For example, research shows that “Right to Work” states have done better than others in economic growth. However, there are actually explanations for these differences that have nothing to do with “Right to Work” laws. In fact, according to an article in USA Today, “In Oklahoma, the job gains after the law passed… were not unusual in the region. Three neighboring states without a right-to-work law — Missouri, New Mexico and Colorado — experienced similar job growth, in some cases even exceeding Oklahoma’s.” In addition, those states, particularly in the Rust Belt, that remain free of such laws are heavily dependent on the manufacturing sector which has seen massive declines across the nation. States that have “Right to Work” laws are concentrated in the Sun Belt, are not heavily dependent on manufacturing and they have seen large population influxes that affect consumer demand in their state.
Unions have had to face many harsh obstacles over the past few decades ranging from steep declines in the manufacturing sector to increases in the number of “Right to Work” states, and it shows in the declines in membership and loss of collective bargaining rights for public employees. The recent decision by the Supreme Court in Knox vs. SEIU dealt another blow to unions. As a backdrop for these struggles, they face the negativity of the media constantly painting them in the worst possible light and the never-ending attacks from corporations and big business interests. Given the disheartening loss in Wisconsin, perceived by many as a blow to unions, that state remains at risk for becoming yet another “Right to Work” state. Unions represent middle class, but also working class Americans, a group with which liberals have consistently lost favor. It is in the best interests of liberals and of workers to regroup and continue the fight for fair representation of labor. Hopefully, the Democratic Party, in particular, will realize this and diligently step up to the plate.
Photo courtesy of Uprising Radio.org