“Right to Work” Isn’t Going Away, At Least for the Moment

Rand Paul has a new video online that is being distributed by the National Review. He  asks viewers to sign a petition and make contributions in support of national “right to work” legislation. The video emphasizes three points about “Big Labor’s power of forced unionism”:

  1. It has crippled America’s competitive edge.
  2. It has forced countless American companies overseas.
  3. It has polluted our political process for more than half a century.

Of course, none of these are new attacks, but the vehemence of the anti-union rhetoric from the Far Right during this and the previous election cycle flies in the face of several basic facts and begs the question of what its purpose is.

For, over the last three to four decades, the relentless attacks on organized labor by the Far Right have produced results. Union membership is about 40% of what it was at its peak. (By the way, especially in the private sector, where nine out of ten workers are not unionized, the argument that workers are forced to join unions has become preposterous. Beyond the fact that unions are formed through closely monitored and democratic elections, there are simply many more opportunities for non-unionized, rather than unionized, employment. So anyone very vehemently opposed to unions cannot credibly argue that he or she has been forced into a unionized workplace. Likewise, given the Yeshiva decision that effectively prohibits faculty unions at most private colleges and universities and given the number of public colleges and universities at which faculty are not unionized, especially in the 23 right-to-work states, being forced into a union is also not a credible claim for a faculty member to make.) Moreover, unions are much more difficult to form and to sustain than they once were—certainly in right-to-work states but even in the other states. Even where unions do exist, corporations have much more leverage than unions in negotiations, and despite the propaganda to the contrary, state and local governments have much the same advantages over public-employee unions.

What is occurring now is a naked attempt to eliminate unions entirely. Why? Because out of the top twelve groups that make political contributions, the three largest unions are the only groups that support progressive candidates. Because, especially at the state and local level, the elimination of those unions will provide a tremendous new political advantage to the Far Right, in particular in Northeastern and the Midwestern states. Because a workforce without the protections afforded by unions is more compliant and more easily exploited. Because sustaining the image of the unions as the economic bogeymen deflects attention from some of the excesses of American corporate power. And because, as is often said, pendulums swing both ways, and the very determined, persistent suppression of workers’ wages, benefits, and basic rights is inevitably going to produce significant blowback.

Not surprisingly, as American wages and benefits have become depressed—and as wages overseas have started to rise and as transportation costs have also inexorably risen–manufacturing jobs have been returning to the U.S., from Central and South America and from Asia. Ironically, wages are very slowly rising overseas because workers are organizing to demand better wages and working conditions. In China, a factory wage of $1.00 per hour may be a lot better than $1.00 per day or per week that a farmer might earn, but at some point, when a corporation’s profits begin to be measured in millions, that wage and the 70-hour work week that comes with it begin to be seen for what they are—ruthless exploitation. Little wonder that “work actions” in China now number in the thousands each month.

And the same thing will begin to occur with greater frequency in this country. During a deep recession, a job that pays $8.00 or $10.00 per hour may be better than no job at all, but it is simply not a living wage. Worse, workers earning those wages typically receive no health or pension benefits. Add in the consequences of the persistent efforts to effectively eliminate Medicare and social security, and the very real and terrible consequences of inescapable impoverishment as a reward for a lifetime of hard work are very obvious—for the workers and their families, if not for their employers or for the legislators who believe in trickle-down economics. The potential for worker discontent is even more predictable and more explosive than that which fueled the formation of labor unions during the Gilded Age. After all, those workers did not have a more prosperous past to look back upon–a prosperous past which the Far Right, ironically, keeps harkening back to and reminding them of.

During the 1950s and 1960s, when union membership was, not coincidentally, at its highest, most working-class families became part of the middle-class—so much so that the distinctions between “working-class” and “middle-class” largely disappeared. The strength of unions is directly proportionate to the affluence of working-class and middle-class Americans. That correlation is simply indisputable. In contrast to the 1950s and 1960s, over the last thirty years, as union membership has steadily declined, the wages of American workers have flat-lined, the health and pension benefits provided to those workers have eroded or disappeared entirely, and abuses inherent in the widespread reliance on “temporary workers” have made any prospect of long-term financial security a pipedream for too many workers across all categories, from the unskilled to the professionally trained.

There was a time when the large industrial unions did try to protect their membership at the expense of American companies’ “competitive edge.” But those days are long gone. The UAW was a very constructive partner in the bailout that recently saved GM and Chrysler and many parts suppliers to all of the automakers. Still, it is very unlikely that the industrial unions such as the UAW will be the models for the new unions. The conditions that define the contemporary workplace make it very likely that membership in the new unions will have to be portable. It will need increasingly to provide benefits that are associated with upward mobility and affluence, such as access to health care, affordable education, and protected pensions. And it will need to provide professional advantages, access to resources that give members a competitive edge.

These sorts of things are already beginning to occur in those unions whose members are most transient. Given the broad sense that the current conditions for too many American workers are simply not sustainable, it is not coincidental that this year, for the first time in more than three decades, Gallup polling has shown that more Americans have a positive view of unions than a negative view of them.

I would like close by suggesting one further reason for the very determined pursuit of right-to-work legislation by the Far Right. Not just economics but demographics are working against them. It is no coincidence that the most radical regressive legislation has come from states that are trending from consistently “red” to increasingly “purple”—states such as Virginia and Arizona. People who are confident of their hold on power do not indulge in the sort of political overreach that has been very conspicuous in those states over the last two to four years. For, ironically, such overreach almost inevitably accelerates the erosion of the political power that it is meant to demonstrate.

P.S. I anticipate that this posting will provoke some readers, in academia and outside of it, to declare that I am some sort of “communist,” “socialist,” “leftist intellectual,” or “anti-corporate shill.” I am not any of those things, and I am pretty much past the point at which name calling matters to me.  I am a tenured full professor with a solid professional record, and I am very aware that I am very well off–not just in comparison to most American workers but in comparison to all of the “contingent” faculty at our colleges and universities. I would like to see more Americans and more of our faculty colleagues given a fair shot at the kind of life that I have somehow managed to earn, through both hard work and some degree of sheer luck. And because I am not running for political office and do not have to worry about alienating any constituencies, I do have great freedom to express myself in detail–as does any other AAUP member who wishes to take the time to compose a post to this blog. As should any faculty member at an American college or university, if “academic freedom” still means anything and is not simply a euphemism for professional ruination.

8 thoughts on ““Right to Work” Isn’t Going Away, At Least for the Moment

  1. This question is particularly pertinent to education, where a faculty protected by union representation makes for better education. There’s no question about this: exploitation of faculty (as we are seeing with the now long-term misuse of contingent hires) reduces the interactions between teachers and students beyond the classroom, interactions that are as important to education as the classes themselves.

  2. Pingback: Talking Points, No. 2 | Academe Blog

  3. Pingback: Right to Work, by the Numbers: Part 6 | Academe Blog

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  5. Pingback: “Right to Work,” by the Numbers: Part 8: GDP in Urban and Rural America | Academe Blog

  6. Pingback: “Right to Work,” by the Numbers: Part 9: Previously Uninsured Americans Who Now Receive Health Insurance through the Federal Exchanges Established under the Affordable Care Act | The Academe Blog

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