What Is 'Right-To-Work'? Why Does It Suck? What Is Big Gretch Doing To Murderize It In Michigan?
Exciting news! Michigan is set to become the first state in 60 years to reverse a so-called "right-to-work" law, which is a very big deal. It was also a very big deal when, in 2012, Republican Gov. Rick Snyder initially signed the right-to-work-for-less legislation into law, given the state's robust history of unionization as the home of United Auto Workers. Especially since he had promised not to and then reversed because he felt he had to punish unions for lobbying for collective bargaining rights to be put into the state constitution.
Democrats in the Legislature and Gov. Gretchen Whitmer are going to correct that nonsense — but if you're not super familiar with right-to-work-for-less laws, here's a nice refresher on why they suck.
What Is Right-to-Work?
Sadly, right-to-work in this country does not mean guaranteed employment for all job seekers through a vibrant public works program — though that would be awesome! What it means is that workers can't be required to join a union and pay dues as a condition of employment.
For decades, Republicans have worked hard to present this as an issue of "freedom" — claiming that it is unfair to force people to pay dues to unions if they don't believe in unions. It is easy to see how people could find that very reasonable.
Indeed, part of the trouble with overturning right-to-work legislation has been that the language used by proponents does make it seem fair and reasonable. Right-to-work sounds good. When people are polled about it, they get asked questions like whether or not they believe that "no American should be required to join any private organization, like a labor union, against his will." That's the kind of thing people are going to say yes to without thinking much about, especially if they are not deeply familiar with the subject.
So Why Is It Bad?
The problem, however, is that they are not fair. Or reasonable. The unions are still required to represent employees who don't pay dues, making them free riders who benefit from the dues paid by their co-workers. This decreases a union's overall budget and therefore the effectiveness of collective bargaining, leading to lower wages and benefits across the board for all full-time employees, whether or not they belong to the union.
Without a true union, employees simply don't have the leverage to get what they need through striking — like the Alabama coal miners who went on strike for a year and got nothing.
Workers in right-to-work states make, on average, almost $9,000 a year less than workers in free-bargaining states. Not just union workers, all workers — because good union jobs mean that non-union jobs have to pay their own workers more in order to compete. Poverty rates are higher, the percentages of workers in low wage jobs is higher (24 percent vs. 14.5 percent in free bargaining states). Workers in these "right to work" states are also less likely to be insured and far more likely to die in a workplace accident (37 percent more likely!). They also have higher maternal and infant mortality rates, probably because of the healthcare situation.
So if we were going to phrase a poll question, we might ask people if they would be willing to accept lower wages and fewer benefits as well as being more likely to die on the job or in childbirth just so some chooch could get all of the benefits of belonging to a union without having to pay for it. We can probably guess what their answer would be.
Aren't Union Members Usually White Midwestern Guys In Flannel Shirts Who Probably Voted For Trump Anyway? Why Should We Help Them?
Actually, no! Women make up about 47 percent of all union members and all people of color make up 37 percent (compared to 24 percent of the general population). Black people are more likely than any other demographic to be covered by a union contract. In 2020, union members voted for Democrats in far greater numbers than non-union members did. There are no statistics, however, on their sartorial preferences.
Additionally, like pretty much every other economic justice issue, this is also a social justice issue.
It would be so super great if we could eliminate discriminatory employment practices by changing people's hearts and minds or if the civil rights laws we have in place actually prevented that from happening. We can't and they don't. The next best thing, however, is throwing up roadblocks that make it extremely difficult for employers to pull that off. Unions do that by making it difficult to fire people for stupid, discriminatory reasons and by ensuring that everyone is getting paid fairly.
Why Does 'Right-to-Work' Even Exist In The First Place?
Surprise, it is racism.
Like many other stupid laws or statutes we have — jaywalking, felon disenfranchisement, subminimum wage — "right-to-work" is rooted in racism and a desire to preserve white supremacy. Long story short, unions are an equalizer and a lot of white people, especially in the South, were not too keen on that. They didn't want to be in unions if Black people were also going to be in their same unions.
Originally coined in 1941 by Dallas Morning News Editor William B. Ruggles, it was most notably promoted by a conservative Texas lobbyist/avowed white supremacist/antisemite/anti-women's suffragist named Vance Muse. Muse was the leader of the Christian American Association and the editor of the Christian American newspaper, both of which he used to fight against unions. He also worked for a group called the Southern Committee to Uphold the Constitution (SCUC) which was organized against re-electing FDR.
Muse's opposition to unions was rooted in both greed (he was getting paid by wealthy industrialists and plantation owners to push anti-union legislation) and extreme racism, having been quoted as saying, "From now on, white women and white men will be forced into organizations with black African apes whom they will have to call 'brother' or lose their jobs." Many Southerners bought into this line and soon enough both Arkansas and Florida were passing "right-to-work" laws.
Some of this may sound familiar, via the American Constitution Society:
By the early 1940s, Muse and his Christian American Association allies, like many southern conservatives, focused their wrath on the labor movement, especially the unions associated with the Congress of Industrial Organizations that were organizing sharecroppers and challenging the legal underpinnings of white supremacy. The Christian American Association solicited wealthy southern planters and industrialists for funds to help break the “strangle hold radical labor has on our government” through the enactment of anti-union laws. The Christian American Association warned that the CIO—which had become shorthand for Jewish Marxist unions—was sending organizers to the rural South to inflame the contented but gullible African-American population as the first step in a plot to Sovietize the nation.
Truly, they never come up with anything new.
But You Don't Have To Take My Word For It!
This very same week, Sen. Rand Paul did this:
In the video above, Paul states that all Americans deserve the glorious benefits Kentucky residents have "enjoyed" as a result of right-to-work laws. “Kentucky’s Right-To-Work law has been an incredible draw for jobs and investment. Our entire country should have that same advantage.”
As for attracting jobs and businesses — these would be businesses that would hypothetically be moving to a given area because they can pay the people there less than they can pay people in other states, no? So clearly they're not very good jobs. Is that really the kind of business one wants to be attracting? Isn't "Hey, come here and pay our worthless citizens half what you'd pay people in other states!" just a little bit insulting?
It would be one thing if this actually worked, but ...
According to US News & World Report, Kentucky ranks 40th in economy, 39th in business environment, 45th in employment, 45th in economic opportunity and 48th in fiscal stability. As for investors, venture capitalists invest $0.925 for every $1,000 per GDP, far less than the national average of $6.05. The state also "enjoys" the nation's 5th highest poverty rate.
One thing that could help with that would be unions. So perhaps instead of pushing for National Right to Work, Kentucky politicians might want to take a better look at what Michigan is doing.
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Robyn Pennacchia is a brilliant, fabulously talented and visually stunning angel of a human being, who shrugged off what she is pretty sure would have been a Tony Award-winning career in musical theater in order to write about stuff on the internet. Follow her on Twitter at @RobynElyse