In the very near future, I plan to post an extended comment on the passage of so-called “right to work” legislation in Michigan, as well as a series to be called “Right to Work, By the Numbers,” which will provide much detailed evidence that this sort of union-busting legislation can hardly be said to provide any sort of panacea for workers.
But as a prelude to those posts, I think that it is worthwhile and even necessary to ask some very basic questions that have almost never been asked during the debates over the relative value of unionization and “right to work” legislation.
First, no one ever asks or explains how “right to work” legislation actually and specifically benefits workers.
Proponents of “right to work” will immediately recite talking points about the corruption of union bosses, the counterproductive effects of some union work rules, and the use of union dues to support political causes with which not every union member agrees.
Let’s say, for the sake of argument, that all of these things are true, how does eliminating unions then insure fairer wages, fairer benefits, fairer workloads, and safer working conditions?
Does anyone believe that the average worker can negotiate those things more effectively as an individual than as a member of a union? If you do and you are making less than the median family income—still less than $50,000 per year–I’d like to know what company employs you and on what planet both it and you are located. I know that there are companies that treat their employees very well, but how many of those companies have large, low-wage work forces? Perhaps I have simply missed or overlooked the stories about such places in the media. Perhaps those companies are so commonplace that the media does not feel it is newsworthy to publicize such happy-go-lucky low-wage workplaces and workers. And if most of those working poor are so contented, so accepting of their circumstances, why were Romney and his donors so resentful and disdainful towards them?
I can understand why many workers may have become very disillusioned over the inability of the large industrial unions to preserve the jobs of their members in the face of relentless automation and low-wage foreign competition. Yet, over th last four decades, wholesale layoffs and outsourcing have not just continued unabated but have even accelerated as union membership in the private sector has declined to under ten percent nationally. So to claim that unions are primarily to blame for declining wages, eliminated benefits, unrealistic workloads, poor working conditions, the lack of job security, and business failures is patently absurd.
And it is worse than absurd–It is absolutely idiotic and patently dishonest—to do so when corporate profits and stock dividends, the compensation of corporate executives, and the self-interested political activism of corporations have reached unprecedented levels, measured both in raw dollar amounts and in proportion to the compensation received by and the political influence exerted by the average American worker.
Opponents of unions like to point out that unions have had their day, that they have outlived their usefulness—that they are tired of hearing about the things that unions accomplished for workers half a century ago.
If unions and the benefits that they provide are no longer relevant, why have the incomes of working-class families actually declined over the last three decades? (Why, when over the same period, the incomes of middle-class families have stagnated and the incomes of upper-class families have increased exponentially?) Why is the working class no longer middle class? Why have “benefits” become things that workers can purchase whenever they can afford them on their much reduced wages? Why are there now many more working poor than so-called “welfare cases” relying on public assistance programs such as food stamps and school lunches for economically disadvantaged children? Why are emergency rooms overwhelmed with sick adults and children from working-class families who have no health insurance and no place else to go for last-minute medical care?
If unions are so unnecessary, why are low-wage workers across a wide spectrum of workplaces, from Walmart warehouses to fast-food restaurants, risking what little economic security that they do have in order to attempt to form unions? If you answer that they have all been duped by pernicious union organizers, you have never tried to organize a union. In terms of the level of disinterest tinged with suspicion that one often encounters in trying to organize a union, it is a task all too comparable to being a door-to-door evangelist.
Returning to the talking points of proponents of “right to work” legislation, why, in all of the discussion of “right to work,” is there so much attention to union corruption and union excess and so little attention to corporate corruption and corporate excess? I am not willing to defend the attitudes and behavior of every union leader in America, but one hardly has to do an extensive search to find manifold evidence of corporate self-interest and malfeasance. Unions can hardly be said to have cornered the market on schmucks in leadership positions.
When I was still smoking cigarettes, I once was stopped outside our public library by a vehement anti-smoker. It was a very humid summer night, with almost no breeze, and the chemical odors from the large refinery and chemical plants at the south end of town had concentrated over the whole town, rather than dissipating downwind of the town. As I was listening to the non-smoker hector me about what I was doing to my lungs, I consoled myself with the observation that his harangue meant that he was drawing all of that chemically-enhanced, carcinogen-rich air deeply into his lungs and probably doing more harm to them than at least that one cigarette was doing to mine.
The point of this anecdote might be that people often very passionately miss the obvious and consequently misdirect their passion. But I think that the point is actually more subtle. An ex-smoker who will feel so self-righteous in haranguing smokers will never picket a polluting plant because he or she would feel ridiculous and ineffectual, rather than vindicated, in picketing the plant. Analogously, I think that, in many instances, workers who ought to know better find it easier to repeat corporate-sponsored talking points against unions and against their own interests than to reflect on and to express their dissatisfactions with the companies that employ or might employ them.
I can understand why corporations are in favor of “right to work” legislation. I cannot understand how a worker can support such legislation.
As I indicated earlier, the proponents of “right to work” legislation often argue that unions are, in effect, un-American because union dues are used to support political causes with which not every union member agrees. Putting aside the fact that union elections are now, very arguably, much more closely supervised and more democratic than political elections in general in this country, one might ask why the workers on the losing side in such elections should be able to dictate what the majority should or should not do.
If corporations are indeed “people,” I’d like to know why corporations are not held to a comparable standard. Why all political contributions made by corporations must not be approved by a shareholders’ vote before they can be made. Or why a minority of shareholders cannot prevent a corporation from contributing to political campaigns with which those shareholders disagree. Or why all political contributions made by corporations must not be made in proportion to the distribution of opinion reflected in a vote by shareholders.
I’d like to know why almost every “right to work” law in the country allows a worker who declines to pay any dues to the union to which he chooses not to belong can nonetheless demand that that union represent him when he needs representation—and can even sue that union if he feels that that its representation has somehow been insufficient.
I’d like someone to explain why the same far-right politicians who declaim about the pressing need to limit the “frivolous” lawsuits that can be brought against corporations have applied this very different standard to unions.
I’d like them to explain how these very different standards reflect some sort of core American values, rather than reveal transparent political expediency.
I’d like to remind them that unions are people, too. And not just because the Citizens United decision has declared them to be so.