Earlier this week the Michigan legislature passed a law making Michigan a “right to work” state. This change represents Michigan’s dramatic shift from a pro-union state to a more conservative, pro-business state. Nearly half of the states are right to work states, a trend that shows no sign of abating. Right to work is a brilliantly contradictory term composed by pro big business factions. The term is more accurately defined as “screw the worker”.
As an attorney in North Carolina, which is a right to work state, I have seen firsthand how this pro-business/anti-worker legislation hurts not only the workers but the economy in general. Right to work legislation is premised on the idea that lack of regulation is a good thing because it promotes business growth. Proponents of this legislation believe unions get in the way because they make business inefficient and stifle growth. Recently North Carolina has not fared well economically in spite of right to work legislation.
In right to work states, an employee may be fired for virtually any reason other than discrimination against a protected class. This means an employer can fire an employee because he or she does not like the employee’s clothing or thinks the employee is fat. Even if there is some form of discrimination an employer need only show some other reason for termination, and the aggrieved employee will have little if any legal recourse. The reason does not have to be a good reason.
Employment law claims are very difficult to maintain in right to work states because the law is slanted in the employer’s favor. Regardless of the merits of the case, the law makes it difficult to maintain a case.
The process usually goes like this: Employee is fired. Employee files a complaint with the EEOC (Equal Employment Opportunity Commission). Rarely is the case resolved at this level. The EEOC will issue a right to sue letter. Employee retains an attorney, but, even if there is discrimination, harassment or a hostile work environment, the case stands the likelihood of being dismissed if there is any legitimate reason for termination. Again, this is a very low bar for the employer.
In right to work states, unions have little if any power, and this means workers are paid less because no one forces management to pay workers more. Anti-union people argue unions stifle business growth, but there has never been any evidence to support this notion. To the contrary, the United States thrived economically in the 1950’s and 1960’s when unions had more influence.
When workers make less everyone suffers. If workers are paid lower wages, they will not have as much money to support themselves and their families. This means they will have less money to spend on goods and services. Businesses that provide these goods and services will suffer if no one can afford their goods and services.
Generally, proponents of right to work legislation argue regulation of any kind is a bad thing. They believe in pure capitalism, free and unfettered by nettlesome regulations. This is a fallacy, and history has shown us what happens without proper regulations.
What these proponents of right to work legislation fail to acknowledge is appropriate regulations can make the workplace safer and more efficient. Ultimately this benefits the corporation and the worker.
For example, a worker who is safer will be much more productive because he or she will be able to stay on the job. When there are not appropriate safety regulations, workers stand a greater chance of being injured. If these injuries occur on the job, in most states the corporation will have to pay the injured worker’s workers’ compensation benefits. This is expensive, and, if the worker cannot fully recover, the worker will never make the same wage he or she did prior to the injury. This dissipates the worker’s purchasing power, and this has a ripple effect throughout the economy.
The most troubling aspect of right to work legislation is many workers support the legislation. Ironically, the very people who are protected by unions and who benefit economically from unions are duped into thinking right to work legislation benefits them. Citizens United and other organizations like it have been masterful in convincing people to vote against their own self-interest in this regard.
Right to work legislation does not help workers. In fact, it does a great deal to hurt them. Right to work legislation insures workers will make less money. Workers will have less legal recourse against employers, and the work environment will be less safe. Unfortunately this is a trend that will continue until people elect representatives who are less beholden to corporations and more loyal to the people.
Image: Occupy Las Vegas
Lawyer at Wells Jenkins Lucas Jenkins PLLC in North Carolina. Writes the daily blog southernlawyernc.blogspot.com.