The USA’s right to work … for less!
The news this week that union protestors in Lansing, Michigan, USA who were arrested in December last year at a mass protest against the decision of the state to become a ‘right to work state’ will not be prosecuted has generated further interest in the issue.
In December 2012 Republicans in Michigan, the cradle of the US union movement, forced through legislation in the face of union opposition and in the teeth of a demonstration of 10,000 union members.
To many UK union members the ‘right to work laws’ remain a mystery. So here is a ‘rough guide’ as to what they are all about.
Following the re-election of President Barack Obama a number of US states said they intend to become ‘Right To Work” states, notably in union heartlands such as Michigan and Ohio. The number of right to work states has now grown to 24.
So what does ‘right to work” mean? The phrase ‘right to work’ appears to date back to 1902 – it sounds like a guarantee of employment, but it has nothing to do with whether you’re guaranteed to have and hold a job.
A ‘right to work’ law states that employees cannot be compelled to pay union dues, even if they are covered under a ‘union contract’. Even if a union is operating in a given workplace and negotiating agreements, workers cannot be forced to join the union – even though they will get the benefits of wage agreements and better conditions – it is in effect a ‘free-riders charter’.
Before 1947, ‘right to work laws’ were not possible, but that changed with the passing of the Taft-Hartley Act, which outlawed the ‘closed shop’ which restricted employment to union members only, and required membership as a term of employment.
The Wall Street Journal has suggested that right to work laws promote job growth. But in effect they entice companies away from states without such laws with promises of lower wages and weaker unions. Even the WSJ admitted that that ‘right to work’ states have lower wages and less favorable employment contracts, because the collective bargaining power of unions is diluted.
In the USA administering unions can be costly and the process of negotiating contracts can be painstaking and expensive, as can providing benefits for union members. If everyone in the union pays dues, costs can be kept lower for all members, and every worker is equally invested in the union.
Free-riders create an imbalance – when union and non-union workers are covered under the same negotiated contract, it means that the free-riders get the benefits of union membership for free, weakening bargaining power and allowing employers to reduce labour costs
A weak union will struggle to assert itself at the bargaining table. As for workers, a strong union can make for better working conditions, a safer workplace, better benefits and more pay, and unions are stronger with more dues-paying members.
In a nutshell, right wing Republicans, frustrated by the role unions played in Obama’s re-election, are using ‘right to work’ laws to punish unions for the role and influence they had in the election.