“Right to Work” Is an Insult to Intelligence, Addendum

In my original post under this title, I pointed out that the proponents of “right to work” never directly address questions about how “right to work” improves workers’ wages, benefits, or working conditions. I rhetorically asked who can possibly believe that a worker–in particular a worker receiving low to average compensation–can negotiate more effectively as an individual than as part of a bargaining unit.

I also emphasized the fundamental unfairness in an element of all “right to work” legislation: namely, that workers who choose not to join unions, who choose not to pay “fair share” dues, are not only covered by union-negotiated contracts but are also entitled to union representation—and are even empowered to sue the union for inadequate representation.

I believe that that is precisely the sense of “entitlement” about which the Far Right is always complaining.

Nonetheless, I would like to extend both points in this post to show how the case for “right to work” is layered with very purposeful misrepresentations that inevitably become outright lies.

In an interview on MSNBC, Governor Snyder made the absolutely preposterous claim that the “right to work” legislation in Michigan, unlike the “anti-union” legislation passed in 2011 in Wisconsin and Ohio, has nothing to do with the relationship between employers and employees; instead, according to Snyder, it simply concerns the relationship between unions and the workers whom they represent—and it is in all senses “pro-worker.” This is such a blatant attempt at misdirection and misrepresentation by a political leader who certainly knows better that it deserves to be denounced very bluntly for what it is—absolute bullshit, the stink of which carries well beyond the borders of Michigan, if not from sea to shining sea.

The concept of a “union shop” derives from the very obvious reality that workers are always at a fundamental disadvantage in negotiating with employers. Management is always a more compact and cohesive group and can typically draw upon political and fiscal resources much beyond anything on which a local union chapter can draw. A union that has been democratically selected by the workers in a plant needs “fair share” participation from those workers who choose not to stand with the majority and to become members of the union because it is all too easy for management to set the interests of one group of workers against another.

Under “right to work” laws, a company that faces tough negotiations with a union that does not represent all of the workers of a certain type in a plant can undermine the union’s position simply by giving large raises and additional benefits to workers who do not belong to the union.

The effect will be comparable to what happens in a city when a neighborhood begins to degrade. The first residents to recognize the creeping degradation and to sell their properties get market value for them. But past a certain tipping point, those who sell out get ever lower amounts for their properties—until the last holdouts realize that in order to sell their properties, they have to be willing to take a big loss.

Once union solidarity has been undermined in this way, the workers’ position in negotiations with a company is hopeless. It becomes a race to the bottom in terms of wages and benefits.

The proponents of “right to work” legislation will argue that union obstinacy—union unwillingness to accept needed “compromises” on wages and benefits—has cost workers’ jobs. They will point, for instance, to the failed “negotiations” that led to the recent bankruptcy of Hostess Bakeries.

But, built into that sort of reflexively anti-union position is the thinly veiled assumption that workers should accept and be satisfied with whatever wages and benefits a company decides to offer—regardless of its profitability, regardless of where else its profits are being directed, and regardless of whether management decision-making, rather than worker productivity, is the cause of any reduction in profitability. Built into that sort of reflexively anti-union position are the thinly veiled assumptions that all corporate leaders have fundamentally benevolent attitudes toward their employees and no interest in compromising their welfare and that all union leaders are ruthless thugs driven by naked self-interest.

It is a measure of the current corporate influence in the media that any credence at all has been given to the claim that inflexible union demands led to the Hostess bankruptcy. It is a measure of the current corporate influence in the media that such meager attention has been paid to the manifold ways in which the venture capital firms that bought a controlling interest in Hostess as it emerged from its previous bankruptcy in 2009 have been systematically “harvesting” its corporate assets, leveraging a massive amount of new debt that cannot be justified by any shortfalls in revenue.

It will be a great thing if manufacturing jobs are, indeed, returning to the United States from China and other low-wage nations. But it will hardly be any boon for American workers if those manufacturing jobs pay little more than or even less than what workers now earn in warehouses, fast-food restaurants, custodial services, and other low-wage jobs. Indeed, as those low-wage workers are now trying to organize for improved wages, benefits, and working conditions, it will be a national disgrace—and a major drag on our broader economy–if the workers in sectors such as manufacturing, who have traditionally been well represented by effective unions, should be headed in the opposite direction and meet their low-wage brethren as they are on their way up.

7 thoughts on ““Right to Work” Is an Insult to Intelligence, Addendum

  1. You’re right that “right to work” laws are unfair, and hurt not just unions, but all workers. But I’m interested in the rhetoric here, and how this purely propagandistic term “right to work” is commonly used in every news story and even by its opponents. The effect is similar to what would happen if the nightly news routinely referred to attacks on abortion rights as “right to save babies” laws. Who could oppose the “right to work”?

    The “right to work” laws have nothing to do with the right to work, because the union doesn’t infringes on anyone’s right to work. What we’re talking about is the right to freeload by not paying union fees, not the right to work.

    Under normal law, if you don’t want to join a union, you still have to pay, in essence, a tax on your wages for the work that the union does on your behalf. If you don’t like the union, you’re perfectly free to oppose the union. You’re free to urge your co-workers to elect different leaders, or affiliate with a different union, or abolish any union representation altogether. But it should be the collective choice of all the workers. It simply can’t work if anyone is free to freeload.

    The analogy here is to paying taxes to the IRS. If you don’t like Congress, you’re perfectly free to urge people to elect different leaders. But no sane person imagines that you have a “right to work” that includes the right not to have a portion of your wages in taxes. So why is your “right to work” violated if a small part of your income is taken away by a democratically-elected body that promotes the common good through a union?

    The Republicans pushing for “right to work” don’t actually believe in a right to work (after all, it’s not written anywhere in the US Constitution). They want to destroy a political enemy by cutting off their funds. The right to unionize—and the right not to be punished for it by being forced to subsidize your slacker colleagues in “right to work” states—is what’s truly at stake here. The “right to work” laws violate that fundamental right of association under the First Amendment by burdening pro-union workers with a greater financial burden that anti-union workers don’t need to pay. In essence, “right to work” is a tax on people who want to join unions, and Republicans hope to kill unions by forcing their supporters to overcome that barrier to free association.

    If you hate unions, then by all means critique them, attack them, and rationally persuade workers to get rid of them. But don’t use the power of government to force an uneven playing field as a cynical political ploy.

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