A right to work, and a right to join

December 13, 2012

Michigan’s legislature dealt organized labor a blow this week when it passed a right-to-work bill. It was the 24th state to do so.

Right-to-work laws prohibit requirements that employees join a union or pay union dues or fees as a condition of employment. Supporters say it is an issue of individual freedom for workers; detractors say it is a means to diminish unions’ power and lower workers’ wages and benefits. The arguments of both are strong, but the debate has been complicated by politics, as almost everything else is these days. Voices of reason tend to be drowned by the torrent of partisan invective.

Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Corbett, a Republican who favors such legislation, told a Philadelphia radio audience this week he sees little chance of a right-to-work bill coming up for a vote during the remainder of his term. “Until I see a strong will to get legislation passed, we have a lot of other things that we have to get passed,” he said. Even though Republicans control the Legislature, a right-to-work bill never made it out of committee in the last session and attracted few sponsors.

Pennsylvania is considered a pro-labor state, and even though only 14.6 percent of the state’s workforce belong to unions, that’s above the U.S. rate of 11.8 percent, according to the federal Bureau of Labor and Statistics.

That labor unions have shrunk so much over the past several generations is a direct result of their success. Everything that organized labor fought for in the late 19th century and the better part of the 20th century has been implemented and is protected by law: minimum wage, workplace safety, worker’s compensation, the right to organize and collectively bargain, and regulations regarding child labor, length of the work day, overtime and discrimination. The main purpose of unions today is to negotiate wages and benefits.

At some point, employers gave in to labor’s demand that union membership be mandatory. If a worker was required to join the union and pay dues in order to get the job, at least this would eliminate the union’s intimidation tactics.

As the benefits from union membership began to dwindle – even as dues increased – some employees bristled at the requirement to unionize, arguing they were capable to negotiate their own conditions. They found eager allies in employers who felt compelled to give into union demands that cut deep into profits and threatened the viability of their business.

That’s how right-to-work bills began. Today, the issue is not so simple.

In Michigan’s case, the argument in favor of the bill was not so much about the freedom of choice but rather how to protect the state’s manufacturing base. Michigan is the epitome of the Rust Belt and has lost many factories to right-to-work states, where labor is cheaper. The question was, which is better: to have a decreasing number of high paying jobs, or an increasing number of jobs that may not pay as much?

President Obama, visiting an engine plant in Redford, Mich., earlier this week, said that the right-to-work bills are more about “giving you the right to work for less money.” That’s true, but it’s also about giving the worker the freedom to associate with whom he or she chooses.

We agree with Gov. Corbett that there are more important issues Pennsylvania must address now, the pension mess being the most critical. But when our legislators do take up the right-to-work bill again, we’d like to remind them of a couple of things: first, that workers have every right to organize for the purpose of collective bargaining; and second, that workers have every right to decide for themselves if they will be a member of the union that does so.



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