February 2013
January 31, 2013

Right to work — The false slogan

Author: Oriana Vigliotti - Associate Counsel
Source: NYSUT United

Dr. King spoke these words 52 years ago, and today we are still fighting the same battle against the false slogan known as "right to work." The Michigan Legislature just passed a right-to-work bill, which undoubtedly will push unions out of Michigan, drive down the wages of all Michigan workers, and cripple progressive political action there.

For those of us in the union movement, it seems nearly impossible that Michigan is now the 24th right-to-work state.

America's modern union movement was born in Detroit. In 1936, during the United Auto Workers' historic two-week sit-down strike at a General Motors' production complex, the governor of Michigan — with the support of President Franklin D. Roosevelt — sent the National Guard to the complex.

It might seem shocking today, but these troops were dispatched not to break the strike, but to protect the strikers from state police and GM strike breakers. Less than a century later, the now-governor of Michigan has proudly declared Michigan an anti-union right-to-work state.

Dr. King was exactly right. "Right to work" is a false slogan. Right-to-work laws have no bearing on an individual's right to work. No worker, whether in a right-to-work state or not, can be forced to join a union or pay union dues.

Under federal and state law, where the majority of workers have chosen to be represented by a union, the union must represent all the employees, regardless of union membership. This representation involves collective bargaining, contract administration and the adjustment of grievances, all of which require financial resources.

In non-right-to-work states, employees who are bargaining unit members, but not union members, can be required to pay what is referred to as an "agency fee." This fee is intended to reimburse the union for a portion of the costs associated with representing non-members.

For example, if a non-member is fired, the union is required by law to fairly represent the non-member, which may involve filing a grievance and ultimately arbitrating the grievance. The non-member hasn't paid any union dues. So, the law provides for the non-member to pay agency fees.

The only thing right-to-work laws do is make it illegal for a union or an employer to require the payment of this agency fee. That's it. Practically, what right-to-work laws do is starve unions of financial resources and make it extraordinarily difficult for unions to operate. You can't run any organization without funding.

It is the stated labor policy of the United States to "encourage the practice and procedure of collective bargaining" and to "protect the exercise by workers ... of the designation of representatives of their own choosing, for the purpose of negotiating the terms and conditions of their employment."

The same is true under New York's labor laws. And rightly so. According to a 2011 Bureau of Labor Statistics report, workers in unionized workplaces earn 28.7 percent more than workers in non-unionized workplaces. For female workers, this jumps to 34.6 percent more. For African-American workers, it's 29.6 percent more.

And labor unions have a long history of pursuing legislation that benefits all workers: higher minimum wage laws, universal health care, and health and safety protections, just to name a few.

Anti-worker, anti-union forces don't like this. They believe working people should have no say in their work lives. So billionaires like the Koch brothers fund the passage of right-to-work laws under the pretense of protecting workers' freedom, claiming the laws will attract business. History has shown us that this is a lie.

Oklahoma passed a right-to-work law 10 years ago. Supporters claimed it would improve job growth. It didn't.

According to the Oklahoma Chamber of Commerce's 2011 report, the number of new companies in the state declined by one-third.

Although New York is not a right-to-work state, the discourse surrounding right to work and the negative economic effects of right-to-work laws serves to hurt workers in every state by driving down wages and normalizing a culture of unchecked employer dominance over workers' salaries and benefits.

President Obama said it best in an address to union members at a plant outside of Detroit in December:

"These so-called 'right-to-work' laws, they don't have anything to do with economics, they have everything to do with politics. What they're really talking about is giving you the right to work for less money."