Nearly 75 years ago, following a rash of labor protests that turned violent between laborers and the police/private security, the United States Congress came together to approve the Taft-Hartley Act (also known as the Labor-Management Relations Act of 1947), over the veto of President Truman. The bi-partisan act presented by a Republican-controlled Congress and significantly supported by congressional Democrats amended the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) by prohibiting several kinds of strikes, boycotts, mass picketing, donations by unions to federal political campaigns, and it allowed states to pass right-to-work laws banning closed union shops.
Right-to-work is a bit of an enigma. For those that don’t know the law, it’s hard to imagine something called “Right to Work” would be bad. Certainly, us “right” loving Americans deserve the “right to work”, along with our free speech and bearing of arms, right? But Right-to-Work is a bit like cocoa powder – it sounds good but leaves a pretty bad taste in your mouth.
In a Right-to-Work state (currently there are 27), employees are not required to pay union membership dues as a condition to employment when a company’s workforce has union representation.
You might be thinking: “That’s all? That’s not bad.” But it is.
This simple, little stipulation wrapped in a hard to oppose name is a trojan horse for the workers, the middle class, and the economy.
Minnesota is not a Right-to-Work (RTW) state, yet. The pressure is always there and while Democrats are firmly on the side of the unions when it comes to opposing RTW legislation, the Republicans tip-toe around the issue, refusing to oppose it in public, even though many know that passing it would be detrimental to many Minnesotans.
RTW hurts all workers – not just union members or non-members in companies with union representation. RTW allows workers to decide whether they want to join the union at their place of employment. If they choose not to join, it dilutes the union’s bargaining strength by making it harder for unions to sustain themselves financially. When companies know unions don’t have the means to negotiate, grieve safety and employment issues, or support a picket, they gain leverage.
Federal law requires unions to represent every employee covered under a union contract even if they are not a member and do not pay dues. Labor unions are the only organization that is required to provide expensive benefits to workers that do not pay their fair share.
Well, ain’t that a real kick in the coveralls.
That means that if Joe gets a job at ACME Factory, where the labor force is represented by Widget Makers of America Local 123, he can choose to not join the union and to not pay union dues. When contract time rolls around, Joe will have invested nothing in getting his union representatives to corporate offices where they sometimes have to stay for months on end to negotiate a contract with the ACME Factory big shots. While at corporate the union executives are fighting for wages, holidays, benefits, and safety for their union members Bob, Billy, and John who paid dues each week out of their paycheck. Oblivious Joe thinks it’s just fine that he will benefit from the hard work the Widget Maker Union heads did at corporate to get a fantastic contract without him paying a dime for it.
A year later, Joe gets in trouble for falling asleep on the job and he’s sure to be disciplined if not out-right fired. Who has to fight for Joe, to make sure he can keep his job and keep supporting his family? The union of course – even though Joe has contributed nothing toward this benefit. Federal law forces the union to fight for Joe, regardless of the cost. And if they don’t, the union representatives could face jail time.
A few years down the road, several more people have been hired and Joe is quick to tell them that they don’t have to join the union because he gets the great pay and benefits and even got to keep his job with the help of a union rep, without paying a dime. So fewer and fewer new hires join the union. The older employees retire leaving union membership dwindling. When it is time to negotiate their contract again, they only have 60% of the members they did the first time and a much smaller bank account to support the cost of negotiating and the threat of the strike. ACME knows this and won’t budge on wages, wants to reduce healthcare, and remove important safety verbiage from the contact. The union negotiators do their best, but without the solidarity of the workers back home they can only save the healthcare coverage. The new contract has no pay raises and some safety clauses removed. Joe and his non-union worker friends at ACME are angry. Mad that the union failed to get them a nice contract, even though they have done nothing to support the union.
A few months later, Joe notices a dangerous situation at work. A new piece of equipment has safety concerns so he asks a union employee what can be done. Unfortunately, the power of the union to act on this safety concern was removed from the new contract.
Right-to-Work has given ACME Factory an advantage while negatively impacting all the workers, their families, communities, schools, and the local economy.
One of the biggest misconceptions about union dues is that international unions use them to support political candidates that not all of their membership approves of. That is simply not true. Federal Law prohibits all unions from donating to any political campaign. Absolutely no union dues are donated to political candidates. Many unions have their own PACs that union members can donate to individually (not through dues) and the PACs will donate to candidates that support issues of concern to the unions.
Lobbyists claimed that RTW laws would boost jobs and bring more manufacturing to states, and while that might have been true for the first couple of states, now that more than half of the country is RTW that benefit has been depleted, and now states that have right to work see no difference in job growth compared to neighboring non-RTW states. What states with RTW do see is lower wages and an increase in workplace deaths. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that workplace deaths were 52.9% higher in states with RTW laws.
Both union workers and workers with no union representation in their place of employment in RTW states experience lower wages and benefits, with all workers making at least 3.1% less than those in non-RTW states with even lower wages for women and workers of color. Unions are the only effective way to eliminate the gender and race gap for wages.
In RTW states, lack of membership decreases the effectiveness of negotiations resulting in lower union wages. Good paying union jobs set the standard for pay in the trades requiring employers without unions in their workplace to compete with union wages to get the best employees. When the unions lose ground because of RTW all workers are take home less money, meaning they spend less money and decrease the overall economy. When unions are strong the middle class is strong. RTW expands the inequality in our workforce enriching companies and top management while neglecting those in the middle and lower classes.
In the study “Impact of Right-to-Work Laws on Labor Market Outcomes in Three Midwest States: Evidence from Indiana, Michigan, and Wisconsin”, Journal of Policy Analysis and Management, 2015, they found that Right to Work negatively impacted Wisconsin when compared to Minnesota. The study said “When Minnesota and Wisconsin implemented vastly different policies – the former based on strengthening labor standards and other progressive priorities and the latter centered on Right-to-Work and other measures weakening workers’ rights the results were clear. Non-RTW Minnesota had stronger job growth, faster wage growth, faster-shrinking gender pay gaps, and greater poverty reduction than its RTW neighbor (Wisconsin).”
It’s only a matter of time before Right to Work worms its way back into the Minnesota House and Senate. It’s important to understand how Right-to-Work laws impact unions, workers, and in the long run… all of us. When Right-to-Work starts appearing in headlines fix its deceiving name by adding two words: “for less”. Think “Right-to-Work for Less.” Less wages. Less benefits. And less protection.