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Right to work legislation affects us all

Last month, there was a development in Michigan which might have a dramatic impact on the political, social and economic well-being of every middle class union worker in that state. On Dec. 11th, the GOP-dominated Michigan Legislature rushed through “right to work” (RTW) legislation. This took place in one day, without any public input, no committee hearings and no floor debate.

“Right to work” legislation is a pleasant-sounding but misleading label. It provides no right to a job or protection from unfair termination, although it does allow people to work in shops where collective bargaining contracts are in place even if those people do not want to pay for union representation. In a closed shop, if a worker does not want to be part of a union, that worker does not have a job.

RTW is found under Section 14b of the National Labor Relations Act and was part of the 1947 Taft-Hartley Act. It imposes limits on how unions can obtain funds by prohibiting a union security agreement between a labor union and an employer. In essence, right to work laws do not require workers to belong to a union to exercise their collective bargaining rights.

In a “union shop” agreement, employees covered by a collective bargaining agreement must join the union. But if an “agency shop” agreement is negotiated, workers don’t have to join the union but must pay for their share of administrating the collective bargaining agreement. But RTW creates a so-called “open shop” where workers don’t have to join the union and don’t have to pay for the costs associated with the collective bargaining agreement.

Because federal laws require unions to represent and collectively bargain for all workers, whether they are union members or not,  RTW allows workers to benefit from the advantages paid for by other members. But, those same RTW employees are not forced to pay for political activities they do not support, such as funding a special interest or political party candidate.

Supporters of this law have a variety of justifications for this legislation. They claim it frees workers from having to pay dues to an organization that may not share the same philosophy. Supporters also claim this frees workers from the requirement of joining an organization against their will.

But in a complex society, freedom isn’t absolute. I wonder how long our economic system could survive if everyone were allowed the “freedom” to take whatever they wanted without paying for it. If they’re so concerned about infringing on the freedom of the individual, I wonder if they would agree to make the payment of income taxes voluntary.

Supporters of RTW also claim it helps attract businesses to their state, and this will result in an increase in jobs. Oklahoma enacted RTW 10 years ago with the promise it would increase jobs. But, according to the Oklahoma Chamber of Commerce 2011 report, the number of new companies coming to the state has actually decreased by one third since RTW was passed, although the reason for the lackluster performance is blamed on cheap labor overseas and not the state’s RTW law.

Unions say RTW laws tend to depress wages and benefits paid to all workers, not just union workers. For example, according to the AFL-CIO, the median household income in a RTW state is $6,437 less per year than non RTW states. In RTW states  26.7 percent of jobs are classified as low-wage jobs, compared to 19.5 percent in other states. Workers are more likely to be uninsured in RTW states, with 16.8 percent lacking health insurance as opposed to 13.1 percent in other states, according to the AFL-CIO.

The AFL-CIO also says there is a higher poverty rate in RTW states with 15.3 percent  living in poverty, but in non RTW states it’s 13.1 percent.

So, if the AFL-CIO says right to work legislation doesn’t help workers or result in the growth of high wage jobs, why are elected officials so eager to compete in a race to the bottom? Clearly, the AFL-CIO says there is more at work here than the stated goals of the proponents. Supporters of this type of legislation are almost exclusively Republicans, which the AFL-CIO opposes greatly.

It’s no secret that labor unions have been the largest contributors to the Democratic Party, both financially and with manpower around election time. The goal of RTW legislation is to limit the funds unions have for organizing and political advocacy and support of the Democratic Party, which is one reason many workers do not want to pay union dues.

Attacking the resources available to unions, like the AFL-CIO, to promote economic equity for workers might be smart politics for the Republican Party, but the AFL-CIO says it’s bad for America. In addition to the counterbalancing effect against the virtually unlimited campaign contributions of wealthy individuals and corporate America, there is the scenario of how America would look with extremely weakened or nonexistent unions.

America was at its greatest when the middle class began to rise out of the ashes of the Great Depression, and it’s certainly no coincidence this was also the time of highest union membership. But as the middle class declined, so has union membership. The middle class is the backbone of our country. They do the jobs no one else can or wants to do. We serve in wars, and we spend our money in this country instead of hiding it in Swiss bank accounts.

Sabotaging the middle class will erode the foundation our country is built upon, and that’s an awfully high price to pay for political ambition.

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