The Right to Work Isn’t

Yesterday, Michigan’s Republican governor signed the Republican lame-duck legislature’s improperly named “right to work” statute. Already, people are clamoring for a similar law to be passed in New York, so that we, too, can join the other, enlightened states that have such legislation – states like Alabama, Mississippi, Texas, and Oklahoma. Tea party states. N0bama states. 

Giving laws exquisitely misleading names is a hallmark of the last few decades. The PATRIOT act offends most American values we used to hold dear. The Defense of Marriage Act doesn’t defend any marriage; it prevents the federal government from recognizing the legality of same-sex marriages if states allow them. There are tons more, and it’s a bipartisan issue

But “right to work” statutes sound fantastic – it would be great if the government actually instituted a law that gave people a fundamental right to work. However, such laws were actually a hallmark of Leninist dictatorships, where people were given make-work do-nothing jobs because who cares? Everyone works for the state, anyway. 

Isn’t it hilarious that the proponents of an American “right to work” scheme are the same people who shout “socialism” at a market-based, conservative Heritage Foundation-created Obamacare? They also scream “MARX” and “LENIN” at you when you suggest that we should join the rest of the industrialized world and guarantee every American the right to access to quality health care. 

As an aside – if you yell “socialism” at everything Obama does, and the economy starts to improve – if your personal situation improves – then “socialism” is going to gain in popularity. Dummies. 

Back to Michigan and “right to work”. What it does is interfere with the right to contract. What it does is interfere with the right of workers to collectively organize and negotiate with management for better pay, better benefits, better work conditions. By weakening those labor protections, you weaken the right to organize and to freely associate. 

Right-to-work laws prohibit “union security agreements”, which are contracts between unions and management whereby the union can require labor to join a union as a condition of employment. This ensures that labor can effectively negotiate working conditions with management at something approaching a level playing field; it gives the exploited labor some leverage. What these laws are not is some sort of statutory guarantee of available employment for every citizen of a state. 

That’s not always how it shakes out. For instance, right-to-work North Carolina has a 9.3% unemployment rate right now, while liberal Massachusetts has a 6.6% rate. You’d think that employers, unshackled by unions, would flock to North Carolina and hire wildly.  Indiana’s unemployment rate dropped somewhat after it passed a right-to-work statute. No huge drop, however. And what do you give up for that? The right to work for crappy wages with crappy benefits? How does this help grow the middle class, or lift the middle class up? How does this advance our society in any meaningful way? How does this enhance the dignity of work? 

The American assault on labor began in earnest when Reagan broke the air traffic controller’s union. Since that time, wages have stagnated, and income inequality has skyrocketed. When you weaken labor, you turn America into a plutocratic banana republic, where the very rich pay off the politicians to ensure that their wealth is protected and secured at the expense of the remaining 99% of Americans. That’s what conservatism in America has wrought

Instead of making it easier for workers to be exploited more by their management, the government should be protecting the rights of workers to be treated fairly and equitably. We should be protecting the right of people to organize and associate with each other in order to ensure good treatment in the workplace. We should be expanding – not contracting – the rights of labor, and by doing that you strengthen America. An America where people don’t march in the streets when multinational corporations legally avoid paying taxes by exporting their profits to holding companies in tax havens. We don’t march in the streets when people shoplift so they can get chemotherapy treatment. We don’t march in the streets for much of anything, except to stand in line for Zhu Zhu Pets or to rail against some fantasy Kenyan socialism. 

What Michigan did is done, and perhaps its unemployment rate will drop, in time. But so will New York’s, and so will everyone else’s. The question is – what are the quality and type of the jobs being created, and why should we further erode the constitutional guarantee of free association. Instead, Michigan is about to free ownership to treat workers as fungible chattel. 

WTF, America?


  • The bill is horribly named, as you correctly point out. And it poorly addresses it’s core issue (mandating union membership). But it does address a fundamentally undemocratic and antiquated system that has been entrenched and needs reform. Meaning, why should a nurse be required to join the union to be employed at a hospital? Why should he or she be required to pay an additional tax (union dues) for the ability to work in a certain place? Should not a worker be able to choose to join the union (and gain whatever benefits those might be) or not? 99% of the time, we’re not fighting for safe breathing air in coal mines anymore. Unions are poorly advocating on behalf of their workers across industries – why shouldn’t a worker be able to opt out of such bad representation.

    Now, there are other ways to do this. Force workers to have to vote each year to keep their union or not. Move power out of the hands of union leadership and back into the rank and file. I don’t know what the right reform is, but the system needs work.

    • Although there are myriad unions, and not only are none of them perfect, but quite a few are bad or downright corrupt, that doesn’t mean that the government should interfere with (a) the right of workers to organize/freely associate; and (b) with private contractual matters between a labor union and an employer that have been negotiated at arm’s length. Frankly, RTW is a fundamentally anti-conservative method of having government inject itself into private matters.

      • I would argue that RTW (to use it for short hand) actually does allow workers to FREELY associate or not. At the moment, the government allows unions to mandate membership, which is the opposite of free.

        And to the nurse example, I’m cheating a bit, because I know that industry better, and that wages/conditions are equal/better in non-union spots across the country compared to locally. Also, try to find a non-union nursing job in Buffalo. But generally, you are right – any worker is free to find a job in a non-union version of their industry . . . and they are, which is why unions are losing ground. I’m generally anti-modern unions (great history, misplaced current priorities/policies IMHO), but if you were pro-union, I’d think you’d doubly want reform of your antiquated and ever-more irrelevant system. The 800 pound elephant in the room is the non-union industry in the those RTW states that are safe, pay living wages, and are growing.

        •  What you’re overlooking here is the enormous debt that non-unionized workers owe to unionized workers: their employers know that they can’t shaft them too much, or a union will come in. In other words, they profit from the work done by union organizers and unionized employees. If you really want to see how great life is for ununionized employees, you need to look at nations where unions are illegal, or where union organizers are frequently murdered, as in Colombia.

          And an 800 pound elephant is a pretty skinny–appropriately, since those safe, living-wage jobs in RTW states are pretty hard to find. Check out those catfish farms in Mississippi, for instance. . . .

          It’s also important to note how labor rights are limited even in non-RTW states. As a public employee in NYS, I can’t strike, for instance, and the state government is constantly trying to undercut labor rights by schemes to contract in, contract out, etc.

          • Jim – correction, non-unionized workers owe a PAST debt to unions. We all owe a debt of gratitude to work the unions did late 19th to mid 20th century. Since then, the push for ever more (with a few notable exceptions) has done more harm to all us than good. Arguing the extremes (Colombia) isn’t helpful or what we’re talking about. I’m talking about the American auto industry, where plants are flourishing in the south and closing post-bailout in the north. Jobs of all types are hard to come by, especially when unionized factories close (see last Sunday’s NY Times on GM’s record in Michigan post bailout and IDA incentives). This is the legacy unions are leaving – businesses are closing rather than deal with their unions anymore. You can blame it solely on corporate greed, or the union can look in the mirror too. Forcing employees to join a union as condition of employment is bad democracy.

          • Unfortunately, gains won in the past have to be re-won in every generation, because capitalism never said “uncle.” That’s why the ruling class continues to invest so much money in weakening collective bargaining rights–not because of their deeply-felt love for democracy, but because they want to depress wages and increase profits.

            Ultimately, it would be a great thing for unions to disappear and for workers to control ALL of their work democratically. But in the meantime, there are many limitations on workplace democracy (the power to hire and fire, for instance) that would just LOVE to break down any collective protections for workers. And of course, capitalists continue to demand uncompensated labor from workers as a condition for the “right to work.” That is to say, they demand profits.

            It’s also interesting to note that democracies are FULL of limitations on absolute democratic rights in so many areas. We don’t have individual democratic rights to refuse military conscription, or speed limits, or the ownership of air-to-ground missiles. It’s only when it comes to collective bargaining that the insistence on absolute individual democracy kicks in. Why? And why is it that so many of those lusty defenders of “right to work” are also opponents of “right to marry”?

          •  If the goal of RTW is to depress wages as it seems to have done in the southern states, isn’t that just begging people to further burden public assistance?  The price of a gallon of gas is the price of a gallon of gas, the difference has to be made up somewhere.

    • Also, to your hypothetical nurse – she is always free to seek employment in a non-union shop. I’d wager, however, that the remuneration, benefits, and working conditions are almost always superior in union shops. (However, cf. Wegmans).

    • Laws like this are the quintessential ‘throw out the baby with the bath water’ solution. 

      Go after the unions that are broken. Don’t restrict the ability and rights of other, legitimate, unions because of a few bad apples. 

  • Go talk to the employees of Twin City Ambulance and Rural Metro Ambulance. Unionizing made that profession an actual career path for many, and didn’t hurt company profits one bit. 

  • “When you weaken labor, you turn America into a plutocratic banana republic, where the very rich pay off the politicians to ensure that their wealth is protected and secured at the expense of the remaining 99% of Americans. ”

    And how much money did unions spend on the 2012 elections to pay off their politicians in order to ensure the wealth of James Hoffa, Randy Weingarten, Mary Kay Henry and Danny Donoghue, at the expense of the 88.2% of wage and salary workers who do not belong to unions?

  • And of course, Michigan has grown to to thrive as a Workers’ Paradise under Union Shop laws.

    34.5% of all households in Detroit get food stamps.

    45.7% of Detroit residents aged 16 or older have removed themselves from the labor force–that is, they do not have a job and are no longer looking for one.

    Detroit boasted 1,849,568 residents in 1950. Now there are only 224,846 residents who have jobs, and 15.3% of these work for the soon-to-be-bankrupt government.

    Of the 363,281 housing units in Detroit, 99,072 are vacant.

    Three car companies and the United Auto Workers–heck of a job, folks.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.