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?
Bloomberg is a great source for news. One of many things I like about the website is its focus on issues that affect working people. Today it offers five graphs that make a sad argument: “Work-life balance is dead.” First, managers in developed countries work more than 40 hours a week. Interestingly, the company listed where the fewest managers who work over 40 hours is China (19%). Second, millennials are trapped between responsibilities at work and home. Third, flexible hours are often a euphemism that gives the employer an option to keep workers on the job at any time and anywhere. Fourth, many people have stayed at their current jobs because they remember what happened in 2008. They are afraid to make a change. Finally, U.S. companies are among the worst in developed countries for giving parents time off to care for family needs.
Is work-life balance dead? Maybe. The points made in this article are very compelling in what they say about the current economy, especially for workers in their twenties and thirties. However, these conditions are neither necessary nor permanent. Working people – union and non-union – need to press federal and state legislators to pass laws that guarantee rights in the workplace. FMLA was a tepid step in that direction. On the other side of the coin, we have seen state after state cut weeks that laid off employees can collect unemployment insurance. Several states have passed “right to work” (for less) laws that hamper unions and lower wages. We need national standards to protect workers and stabilize the economy. We will not get such protection until working people vote for candidates who support labor.
Speaking today in Michigan, President Obama put himself on the side of labor in its conflict with Michigan’s governor and state legislature that is pushing through “right to work” legislation. The President even said that such laws mean “you have the right to work for less money.” Great words, golden words, but we have heard words from this president in the past. What will he do? Actions matter.
In his first four years, the President has done little to help labor. He is currently said to be supporting a Pacific trade bill that would be as bad or worse than NAFTA. He also champions education “reform,” which is a smoke screen for busting teacher unions and enabling corporations to profit from public education. Labor supported Mr. Obama. It is time for him and other Democrats to return the favor. If they don’t, the elections of 2014 could be worse for the Democrats than 2010.
Michigan’s governor and Republican state legislature have followed the Wisconsin model in trying to make the state “right to work.” They are fast-tracking legislature, ignoring large protests in the capital city Lansing. Governor Snyder and his allies claim that they need this law to be competitive with Indiana, which has similar anti-union work rules.
As John Nichols points out in The Nation, if this anti-union action can happen in Michigan, where are workers safe? Nichols quotes a union official who says that wages are $1,500 lower in right to work states. Too many people have forgotten how unions led the way to better wages, benefits, and security. Here in Chicago, our teachers union showed that a united group could win the day. We’ll see what happens in Michigan now, and what happens in two years when the governor and legislature have to go before the people. I don’t simply blame the politicians. They were elected. We who support union rights need to make a better case – and get to the polls.
Travis Waldron of Think Progress breaks down what is happening in Michigan and the consequences for working people. Beyond the immediate set back, one positive I see is a new vitality in the labor movement. Labor is fighting for its life. The politicians are only doing the bidding of masters like the Koch Brothers and Rupert Murdoch, rich men hungry for a few (billion) dollars more. It may take a while, but labor will triumph, and the bigger winner will be democracy in America.