The ‘Right To Work’ Assault on the Middle Class

As right-wing Indiana lawmakers move forward with “right to work” legislation (RTW), their effort to kill the voice of private-sector unions specifically, NEAToday spoke with Professor John Russo, NEA Higher Ed member and coordinator of the Labor Studies Program at Youngstown State University in Ohio, to find out what this means for members of the middle class and unions everywhere.

Q: Let’s not assume everybody knows what “right to work” means… Can you briefly explain its significance to union members and also to those politicians who seek to eliminate unions in our workplaces?

In this country, we have what’s called ‘exclusive jurisdiction,’ which basically means that just one union represents the employees in an established bargaining unit. It’s different from other countries where you might have many unions covering the same group of people. The legislation, which created this exclusivity, also allowed unions to charge dues for the cost of representation. That includes those employees who may be members of the union and those who are not members.

“Right to work” laws, which were enabled by the Taft-Hartley Act in 1947 [a landmark federal bill that limited the reach of private-sector unions specifically], allows for individual states to eliminate those “cost of representation” fees for non-members. It was added to Taft-Hartley to drum up Southern democratic support for the legislation, and historically the states with “right to work” laws are Southern.

The way I teach it in my labor law class is this: Let’s say you have a plant in Mississippi with 100 workers. The union wins the election 60 to 40, but it has to represent every one of the 100 workers—even though only 60 are paying dues.

The proponents of “right to work” really want to hurt the ability of unions to represent their members and their ability to represent them politically. That’s the real issue. And it’s a major one, especially in the current political climate.

Q: There is a growing body of evidence that, contrary to what Indiana Republicans and Gov. Mitch Daniels might say, “right to work” laws have not succeeded in boosting employment rates in the states that have passed them. (In Oklahoma, for example, since the law passed in 2001, jobs actually have moved out of that state and employment rates have fallen…) What is the real track record? What is better for local communities and their economies?

There are numerous studies that disprove the myth of “right of work” leads to job creation.  [Editor’s note: Check out two 2011 studies from the Economic Policy Institute, both showing the dire economic consequences of right to work here and here and also a recent Ball State University study, which shows quite clearly that “right to work” legislation in Indiana wouldn’t do a bit of job creation.]

Furthermore, we know for a fact that “right to work” lowers wages and benefits for everybody—not just union members. If companies want to avoid unionization, they will pay higher levels of wages and benefits. What this means is unionized settings ‘pull up’ the wages and benefits for everybody. When unions are weak and there is no wage pull, it continuously drives down wages in both unionized and non-unionized sectors. It contributes to the race to the bottom.

Q:You have suggested that the current “right to work” battle in Indiana is a learning opportunity. What would you want your union colleagues across the country to learn from it?

You have to practice solidarity. I know it’s an old adage—but you have to remember that the fights in Wisconsin and Ohio, and now Indiana, are fights for you, no matter where you live.

“Right to work”  is part of larger assault on all working people that will spread, no doubt about it. Voter suppression bills also are very much related to RTW as it is attempt to deny people basic rights. Your enemies want to wipe out various people’s ability to vote so that they can wipe out policies that will have an impact on you.

What people need to understand is being a union member is a reciprocal relationship. Both sides have responsibilities. The responsibility of an individual union member has to go beyond dues paying.

You need to take action.