‘Right to Work’ is a cynical power grab
By Stan Sorscher
SPEEA Labor Representative
The effort to expand cynically named “Right-to-Work” laws says a lot about what is wrong with politics
in our country. Disguised as protecting
workers, the real goal is to silence workers’
voice, reduce our bargaining power, and
make our jobs more precarious. It’s about
power — social, political and economic
After years of deceptive messaging, most
people have the misconception that state
law can force a worker to join a union. The
reality is that no federal law and no law in
any state can force a worker to join a union.
That’s good. No state or federal legislator
should tell you when to join a union or
when you can’t. This is a decision for you, your
co-workers, and your employer.
There is one and only one way to have the situation
where all workers contribute to their union. If
your workplace has agency fee or fair share fees,
it’s because your co-workers demanded it and
fought to write it into your contract. AND the
employer agreed. AND your co-workers ratified
the contract. In each subsequent round of contract
negotiations, both sides ratify it again.
This condition becomes part of the collective
bargaining agreement — “the contract” — which
is just that, a legally binding contract between
two willing parties.
To conservative thinkers, a contract is an
object of reverence. Government shouldn’t
interfere with a contract between two willing parties. The cynically named Right-to-Work legislation really forbids workers and
employers from writing mutually agreed
contract language that recognizes workers’
voice at work.
Let’s be clear. We could certainly use
more rights at work. The Bill of Rights
in the Constitution does not apply inside
Most employers have near-total authority over employees regarding hiring, firing, transferring, moving work locations,
and assignment of work to employees. An
employer can insist that all workers listen
to anti-union speeches. In the workplace,
an employer can search your belongings,
tap your phone, read your email, tell you
when and where you can eat, prohibit you
from smoking, and tell you what you can
and can’t read on the Internet.
State and federal laws protect military
veterans, women, older workers and
certain protected classes. Beyond that, in
most states you can be fired for almost
any reason, or no reason at all.
Champions of Right-to-Work argue from
a cynical pretense that they care about
workers. They don’t.
If disingenuous Right-to-Work groups wanted
to protect workers, they would champion free
speech and due process in the workplace. They
might insist that you could only be fired for
just cause; and that workers not be disciplined
for something they wrote on Facebook on their
private time. RTW advocates might restrict
“non-compete” agreements that block workers
from seeking new jobs, or they could strengthen
control of patent rights for employees.
The cynicism of Right-to-Work is in its true purpose — to weaken unions, and minimize one of
the few remaining institutions of civil society
that speaks for workers and communities.
The cynical premise of Right-to-Work
laws is that workers have too much power.
They can overwhelm helpless employers.
Particularly, they say local, state and federal governments are unable to resist the
power of public employee unions.
It’s worth stopping for a second to look at
wage levels for public employees — teachers, legislative staff, fish and game agents,
national park rangers, nurses at Veterans
Administration hospitals, and cabinet
members in the White House. No one
goes into public service to get rich.
Public employees are driven by mission.
They could almost always make more in
the private sector.
While productivity has gone up steadily,
wages in America have been stagnant for
decades. Who got those gains from productivity?
For 30 years, we’ve heard promises that gains
will trickle down to us. A more realistic strategy
for higher living standards is for us to demand
a share of the gains we create. In the post-war
period, workers were able to demand a share
of the gains they created. They could bargain,
with the potential to strike. If one union strikes,
another group of employees have that example of
strength to bargain with their employer.
Since the mid-’70s, strikes have become more rare.
Employers have moved work to low-wage locations with weak labor laws. Bargaining power for
workers is at historic lows.
It is tough to argue that workers have
too much power. It is even tougher to
tell workers that everything will be fine if
we just lower our standard of living faster
by weakening unions.
Canadians understand the deceit underpinning Right-to-Work. Canada made
labor rights a key demand in renegotiating
NAFTA, a trade deal between Mexico, the
U.S., and Canada. Canada wants the U.S.
to end Right-to-Work.
A Canadian Labor leader put it this way.
“The United States has two problems.
Number one is Mexico, number two is
themselves. Canada has two problems:
Mexican (wages) and right-to-work states
in the United States.”
Right-to-Work falsely claims to be about
free speech. Courts have already carved
out religious objectors, and provided an
opt-out regarding union expenses for legislative lobbying.
If you believe in collective bargaining and
the legitimate role of unions in civil society, then the right place to deal with union
dues is in collective bargaining between
workers and employers. That’s exactly
what collective bargaining is for.
Editor’s Note: This article first appeared in The
Stand, the Washington State Labor Council’s daily
labor news website.
Shown here at a labor rally are Dave Baine, left, a retired SPEEA member,
and Jeremy Swirsley, a newer member, on the day of Supreme Court’s opening arguments on a ‘right to work’ case.