Max Rust of the Chicago Sun-Times has produced a concise overview of right-to-work laws and their impact on states and workers. In short, the picture is not pretty. In right-to-work states, wages are lower, infant mortality rates are higher, fewer people have health insurance, and the average level of education is lower. Several states, mostly in the South and Southwest, have had these laws in place since the 1940s. More recently, Indiana, Michigan, and Wisconsin have passed such laws.
Right-to-work laws hurt the ability of workers engage in collective bargaining. Yes, they do give a few people the freedom to avoid union dues. Many others, however, have seen hourly wages in these states go down over recent decades. Unions are far from perfect. In fact, today’s Chicago Sun-Times also features a great investigative article on the family of a local Teamsters’ official. Even so, unions enable workers to bargain for better wages and working conditions. If unions are so bad, why do corporations and billionaires participate in groups like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the Club for Growth, and ALEC? If the richest people in American can collaborate to protect their interests, shouldn’t working class and middle class Americans have the same right?
Today's Chicago Sun-Times reports that Sam Zell has donated $4 million to a PAC that supports the agenda of Governor Bruce Rauner. Columnist Mark Brown sees this donation as part of a movement that he describes this way: "Rich people, no longer satisfied with the privileges of being rich, are going for complete control." This isn't simply a matter of politics. Much of Governor Rauner's agenda targets union employees. Brown quotes Zell as saying, "The 1 percent work harder." That may be true, but in a time when most American face flat wages and poverty is growing, it's hard to see how the hard working 1% are helping the rest of us. Working people need to decide if they support making people like Zell even richer or if they want to have a society where children from the middle class and the working class will have opportunities to be successful. Rich people have always had disproportionate control. Are we moving to a point where their voice is the only one that matters?
Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker has announced that he will sign what is called “right to work” legislation. To be clear, this legislation enables workers at union work places to opt out of union membership and dues. Under this law, some workers will be able to benefit from union negotiation without paying dues. Eventually, no one will want to pay dues, unions will disappear, and workers will be left on their own to take what management will give them. Wisconsin Assembly Speaker Robin Vos (R) cheered the law saying: "The public widely supports worker freedom and the potential positive impact to the state's economy can no longer be ignored."
In reality, as union membership has fallen in the U.S., so have wages. Take a minute and review the chart in this article from Huffington Post. From 1968 to the present, middle class income and union membership has declined at almost the same pace. I could call that many things. It is not freedom.
P.S. Daily Kos's great labor writer Laura Clawson gives her take on the parallel decline of unions and wages while also critiquing Nicholas Kristof for being late to the the party.
Ian Millhiser, Supreme Court writer for Think Progress, examines the case of Quinn v. Harris, which will have a major impact on worker’s rights. This case could affect the future of labor unions and possibly the legality of the minimum wage. Millhiser’s analysis is rich in detail and explanation that I don’t want to try to summarize. I urge you to read this article.
I will post commentary on the decision tomorrow.
My friend Bill Savage sent me an interesting post from the Seattle Stranger’s “Slog.” Boeing has had to move production from its non-union facility in South Carolina back to its unionized Washington plants. Why? It would cost more to move the line and the workers would not be as skilled. At least a few union jobs will be saved, that is, until Boeing finds a way to make the move work (for Boeing).
As reported in Daily Kos, camera-loving senator from Kentucky, Rand Paul, has introduced a national right to work [for less] bill. The real purpose of this bill, like the ones passed at the state level, is to gut unions. Paul claims that closed shop rules hurt workers' freedom by making them pay dues to unions that negotiate their contracts and protect their rights. However, isn't any individual free to work in any non-union [lower paid] position she wishes? Paul says every worker deserves “freedom of association” by which he means freedom not to join a union. His concern is not the individual, unless that person is a CEO of a large corporation.
The real problem is that Paul and other servants of corporate wealth have worked for decades to gut the “freedom of association” that enables workers join in a union. Laws have been passed that make organizing more and more difficult. Large corporations and small companies intimidate organizers and pay off other workers to bash unions. The corporate megaphones of conservative talk radio and Fox News have turned “union” into a dirty word for many American who can’t think critically and are ignorant of history.
When union membership was highest, so were wages of the working and middle classes. As union membership has fallen over the last three decades, so have wages. Maybe Senator Paul has confused poverty with freedom. The American people need to wake up and stop listening to lies that only serve to make the rich richer.
I was listening to Ed Schultz’s radio show today, which included an interview with the great union leader Leo Gerard, President of the United Steelworkers, who asked this question: Why do CEOs and executives get the security of contracts? A small faction of unionized employees have such security, but that piece of the labor pie gets smaller every day. The best paid employees – the executives – are also the most secure.
Corporations now specialize in transferring risk from the company and executives to workers. I met with a client today who drives a small truck. His company is being put out of business by competitors that require drivers to purchase their trucks and routes, which is a method FedEx uses for some of its vehicles. When the company is no longer responsible for the vehicle, it can cut its price while increasing its profit. The company wins, so does it customer. Who loses? The employee who now has to own the truck, maintain the vehicle, and eventually replace it.
This example is just one way that workers are carrying the burden of “productivity.” The more a company can ask of its workers: own the vehicle, own your tools, pay for your entire pension, pay for most of your health care; the more it can take as profit. Those who believe in the “free market” will argue that these business models would be impossible if workers did not accept the terms. I think a more accurate way of describing this situation would be that desperate people will make bad choices. Those bad choices will cause all of us to suffer. First we will pay more to support social programs accessed by low wage workers. The next step will be much worse. What happens when wages fall so low that the shrinking middle class can’t subsidize the system that pushes money up? Our lives will be very ugly.
We need a system that offers real security as well as the opportunity for reasonable profit. Our current system is out of balance, asking the least of those who have the most, setting up a system where those who are most secure are getting even more security.