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 is the 110th birthday of the Industrial Workers of the World (a.k.a., the Wobblies). Labor History in 2:00 offers a brief overview of the union and its famous founders. The Wobblies were persecuted by the federal government and their own policies of not signing contracts hindered their ability to grow. That said, the organization still exists and has carried out several successful organizing campaigns in recent years. As American workers struggle to have better pay and working conditions, it is important to know the history of groups like the IWW and other heroes of the American labor movement. Nothing will be won without solidarity and struggle.
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?
Anyone who cares about working people needs to read Laura Clawson of the Huffington Post. Today she examines the state of Workers Compensation, which has been cut in 33 states. There is also great disparity between states and how they pay for injuries. Clawson points out that if a worker in Alabama loses an eye, she will be awarded $27,280. The same injury in Pennsylvania will be compensated at $261,525. Companies are paying less and less in damages every year and finding new ways to restrict workers' benefits. This story is outrageous, but it’s no more outrageous than stories of workers losing pensions or wage theft or union busting. Until American workers – white and blue collar – realize their common interests, employers will continue to find new ways to make them suffer. It’s easy to blame the super rich. They are acting in a way that makes sense for their interests and security. What is our problem?
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.
- Employers should offer full time jobs whenever possible.
- Employers should offer predictable schedules that let workers plan their lives.
- Employers should encourage worker retention and job security after companies are sold.
I agree with these points and would add the following for all workers:
- Workers should have the right to form unions without facing intimidation from their employers
- The minimum wage should be raised according to changes in inflation.
- The use of non-compete clauses should be limited and regulated. No minimum wage worker should be restricted by a non-compete clause.
- Equal pay for equal work.
- Repeal Taft-Hartley and other anti-worker, “Right to Work” [for less] laws.
Working people need to demand some protection. They deserve a workers' bill of rights.
I frequently cite articles by Laura Clawson of the Daily Kos because she is one of the best writers on labor issues. Today Clawson looks at two stories in which bosses support workers. In one case, workers struck in support of Arthur T. Demoulas, who directed the supermarket chain, Market Basket, in a worker-friendly manner. Demoulas was reinstated. Clawson also tells the story of Arthur Burse, the President of Kentucky State University, who cut his pay so lower wage workers could get a raise. She points out that these stories are not what normally goes on in the work place. Every benefit workers have received over many decades has come from their collective action. As Clawson puts it, we don’t need stories of good bosses who are heroes; we need movements. I agree with her 100%. There are great places to work and great bosses. However, most companies don’t meet that standard. The only way for working people to have security is to work together and demand justice. Hopefully the fast food workers are just the first step in organizing the American workforce.
No university president, athletic director, or coach reacted positively when football players at Northwestern University attempt to join a union. Now we know that they got the message. Huffington Post reports that officials in the NCAA will consider loosening the rules on paying athletes. The proposal would not affect all schools, only the largest conferences. It would also only apply to high profile men’s sports, such as football and basketball. Compensation would not be direct pay, but increased cost of living stipends and insurance policies. No one knows if these measures will be accepted. I do know this: If the players at Northwestern had not been bold enough to consider forming a union, the NCAA and its member schools would have never have considered paying athletes. Workers in other industries need to take note.
I was on vacation and have been unable to post for a few days. I was going to skip today as well, but there is a great article in today’s Huffington Post. It describes how children are made to work throughout most of the world. The two main exceptions: Europe and North America (plus the lightly populated Australia). What do these areas have in common? Workers joined together in unions, often allying with religious reformers and advocates for children, to fight for laws that protected children from exploitations. The next time someone speaks against unions, remind them that there are many places in the world where there are no unions. Those are places where wages are very low and an adult can be working next to a child.
Aljazeera America reports that 1,300 fast food workers from across the U.S. have gathered in Chicago to organize and fight for an increased minimum wage. They want more than more money. The workers are also seeking the protection that comes from being part of a union. Their efforts will set an example for workers in other industries, even middle class professionals who have seen small salary increases over the past few years. Low wage workers are leading the way.
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