Breaking down Right to Work and how it affects us

By Tom Suhrbur
Thursday Jan. 10, 2013

     In 1947, the Republican-controlled Congress passed the Taft-Hartley Act over the veto of President Truman, sharply curtailing the rights and power of unions. A major feature of the act was a provision that allowed states to pass open shop laws. Dubbed Right To Work (RTW) by supporters, open shop laws prohibit unions from negotiating union security clauses that require workers covered by collective bargaining either to join (closed shop) or to pay agency fees (fair share) for the representation that they receive.
     Proponents of RTW laws argue that workers should have the ‘right to work’ wherever they want, without being compelled to join a union or having to pay fair share fees. They argue that “forced unionism” is an assault on workers “personal freedom.” Why should anyone be forced to join or pay fees to a union?
     Since 1947, all of the southern, and many of the western states have enacted RTW laws. Now, there is a major effort by Republicans to pass RTW laws and other anti-union legislation in the midwest – a union stronghold.
     In 2010 electoral landslide, Republicans won control of state governments in Michigan, Ohio, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania. They seized the opportunity in Ohio and Wisconsin to pass legislation severely limiting collective bargaining rights for public-sector unions. The Ohio law later was nullified by a referendum. Indiana passed a RTW law covering private-sector unions in 2011.*
     During the 2012 presidential campaign, Mitt Romney called for a national RTW law as part of a broad anti-union agenda that he promised to support if elected. After losing control of the Michigan House in the election, Republicans rammed through RTW laws for both public and private sector unions in December, while they were still the majority in the State House. Michigan has become the 24th state with RTW laws. Efforts to pass RTW legislation are continuing in Ohio and Pennsylvania. Since labor unions are a major force in the Democratic Party coalition, most Republicans are enthusiastic supporters of RTW laws. In 2012, 18 RTW states voted for Romney.
Are Union Security Clauses Fair?
     Union security clauses are a logical extension of collective bargaining. Once a union wins bargaining recognition in a government-supervised election, it becomes the exclusive representative and negotiates the terms and conditions of employment for all employees in the bargaining unit.
     Since the union has a duty of fair representation, it cannot provide special treatment to employees based on whether or not they join the union. In other words, all workers get the same deal. If the union fails to provide fair representation, it can be charged with an Unfair Labor Practice (ULP) that could result in expensive litigation and large fines. In other words, a union can be held accountable even if the worker is not paying any dues or fair share fees. In light of this fact, the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) and many bargaining laws covering state employees allow unions to bargain security clauses to prevent “free loaders.”
     What alternative do workers have to joining the union or paying fair share fees if they truly do not want a union? A union can be decertified. If 30 percent of the workers sign a decertification petition, the union will conduct an election to determine whether it will continue to represent the workers. If a majority vote “no representation,” the union is out.
     Decertification elections are not usually successful. Faced with the choice, even non-union members in RTW states, will vote for the union representation. Workers can also deauthorize a union security clause in their contract through a similar election process. Deauthorization elections are rare.
Union busting
     While the rationale for RTW is to protect the “freedom” of workers, these laws are really intended to undermine unions. RTW laws embolden employers to fight vigorously against efforts to organize unions. RTW states have the lowest rate of union membership. Unions represent less than 10 percent the workers in all but three RTW states. RTW laws also weaken established unions by encouraging non-membership and depriving unions of much needed revenue.
     Given a choice, some workers will refrain from joining simply to save money. But, more importantly, many workers will not join out of fear, especially when management expresses its opposition to the union. Despite the protection of the law, it is hard to convince workers to join a union when management so often retaliates against union activists. Union security agreements, on the other hand, remove the fear of joining. Since it is a requirement for everyone, individuals feel that they are not likely to be singled out by management. When a bargaining agreement includes a union security clause, most workers readily join.
Lower standard of living for workers
     RTW lower labor costs (wages and benefits). The Economic Policy Institute has pointed out that wages in RTW states are lower and employers provide their workers less health insurance and pension benefits than employers in non-RTW states. In fact, nine of the 10 states with the highest poverty rates (West Virginia being the exception) are RTW, while seven of the 10 states with the lowest poverty rates are non-RTW.
     But do RTW laws significantly attract investment and job creation as some claim. In November 2012, five RTW states had the lowest unemployment but they are sparsely populated western states (North Dakota, South Dakota, Utah, Wyoming and Nebraska). Nevertheless, 10 of the top 20 states with the lowest unemployment are non-RTW states and nine of the top 20 states with highest unemployment are RTW states. RTW laws do not significantly create higher employment.
RTW laws are undemocratic
     Collective bargaining is based on democratic principles. A union is certified to represent all bargaining unit workers through an election. In a similar vein, a union can be decertified or its union security clause can be deauthorized by a majority vote of the employees. RTW laws, in effect, circumvent this democratic decision-making process. They allow individuals to enjoy the fruits of representation without contributing to the collective efforts of the union members.
     RTW laws are intended to make unions ineffective where they are already established and to prevent unions from organizing in non-union shops. The “personal freedom” that RTW proponents want for workers is to bargain individually with the employer. Of course, in a free labor market (non-union), the employer has the exclusive power to set wages, benefits and working conditions and to fire employees “at will.” Without collective bargaining, workers are powerless.
     *Republican Governor Mitch Daniels (Ind.) had already ended collective bargaining for all public employees except K-12 teachers in 2008. Union security clauses in K-12 teacher contracts are illegal.

Tom Suhrbur currently is the Vice President of the Illinois Labor History Society. He recently retired after 26 years as a union organizer for the Illinois Education Association. Prior to his work with IEA, he taught social studies for 17 years. His last teaching job was at Geneva High School. Suhrbur also co-authored the book “Union Brotherhood, Union Town: The History of the Chicago Carpenters’ Union, 1863-1987.”

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