Reprinted with permission from AlterNet.
So-called right-to-work lawsâwhich are more accurately described as right-to-work-for-less laws, anti-union laws, or poverty-producing lawsâused to be a largely southern phenomenon in the United States. In the 20th century, cities in the northern U.S., from Philadelphia, Boston, New York City, and Baltimore to Pittsburgh, Cleveland, Detroit, and Milwaukee, were considered union towns, while many of the southern states were infamous for their hostility to organized labor. But in the 2010s, “right-to-workâ laws have been making considerable progress in northern states. And far-right Republicans like Joe Wilson and Steve King in the House of Representatives have been calling for a right-to-work law to be enacted nationwide.
If a national “right-to-work” lawÂ were to be passed in both the House and the Senate (where it could face a Democratic filibuster), President Donald TrumpâaÂ supporterÂ of right-to-work legislationâwould likely sign it. In that case, all 50 states would become right-to-work states whether they liked it or not. But even without a national right-to-work law, anti-union legislation now prevails in Michigan, Wisconsin, and other states that were once known for strong union protections.
Right-to-work laws gained considerable ground in the southern states 70 years ago, when Congress passed the Labor Management Relations Act of 1947 — a.k.a. the Taft-Hartley Act — and overrode a veto from President Harry Truman (who considered the law anti-union). The U.S.â labor movement had grown considerably under President Franklin Delano Rooseveltâs New Deal in the 1930s and early 1940sâespecially in the northern states and the Rust Beltâand Taft-Hartley, which was designed to slow down that growth, allowed individual states to pass right-to-work laws if they wanted them.
Under Taft-Hartley, employees in a right-to-work state could not be compelled to join a union or pay union dues. A pattern began to emerge: Tennessee, Texas, Virginia, Georgia, Arkansas, and North Carolina all became right-to-work-for-less states in 1947, while union representation was much stronger in Michigan, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, New York, Illinois, and other states that didnât adopt right-to-work laws. So if workers became employed in a unionized shop in Philadelphia or Detroit, for example, it was understood that they would be joining a union, paying union dues, and enjoying all the benefits and advantages that came with unionization.
Although union leaders detested the Taft-Harley law and unsuccessfully fought for its repeal in the 1950s and ’60s, the U.S. on the whole remained heavily unionized during those decades. Around 35% of U.S. workersâslightly more than one-thirdâwere union members in 1954, but in 2012, that number was down to 11.3%, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (among private-sector workers, it was aÂ mere 6.6%). Republicans, in 2012, were delighted to see unions having lost so much ground, and they were especially happy to see a great deal of anti-union activity in what had been traditionally pro-union parts of the country.
Although Barack Obama enjoyed strong union support when he was elected president in 2008 and re-elected in 2012, many far-right Republicans were elected at the federal, local or state levels in 2010 and 2014. One of them was Rick Snyder, who was elected governor of Michigan in 2010 andÂ signed a right-to-work billÂ into law in that state in 2012. Indiana also became a right-to-work state that year, and in 2015, Wisconsin became a right-to-work state under RepublicanÂ Gov. Scott Walker.
Kentucky and West Virginiaâtwo of the more union-friendly southern states in the pastâhave also adopted right-to-work laws in recent years, and Missouri, under Republican Gov. Eric Greitens, became a right-to-work state inÂ February.
Nonetheless, some northern states have so far resisted right-to-work laws, including Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New York, Illinois, Delaware, Ohio, and the New England states. But if Republicans in Congress, with the help of Trump, succeed in passing a national right-to-work law, it will override any opposition on the part of Democratic governors like Tom Wolf in Pennsylvania or Andrew Cuomo in New York.
During aÂ visit to Johnstown, PAÂ inÂ 2014, Wolf explained why he opposes making Pennsylvania a right-to-work state.
âI don’t really understand the logic behind it,â Wolf said. âIn a democratic system, where the majority of workers vote to join a union, Iâm not sure what gives a minority the right to say, âWeâll take advantage of the benefits of the union, but weâre not going to pay for the cost.â Itâs sort of like me, if I donât vote for a particular governor, does that give me the right to say Iâm not going to pay my taxes but I am going to use the roads and the bridges and things like that? I donât think so. It seems to me it strikes at the heart of democratic fairness.â
The Pennsylvania AFL-CIO hasÂ sided with Wolf,Â saying that so-called right-to-work laws âweaken the best job security protections workers have: the union contractâ and that it will oppose any bills that try to make Pennsylvania a right-to-work state. But union-bashing Republicans dominate Pennsylvaniaâs state legislature, and at the federal level, far-right Sen. Pat Toomeyâwho narrowly defeated Democrat Katie McGinty in 2016 and was reelected to a second termâis anÂ enthusiastic âright-to-workâ supporter. While Philadelphia is controlled by Democrats and has long been a bastion of union activity, Central Pennsylvania (jokingly referred to as Pennsissippi or Pennsyltucky) is full of Republicans who would love to make Pennsylvania a right-to-work state.
The fact that Trump, as filmmaker Michael Moore predicted, won three Rust Belt states (Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin)Â a Republican presidential candidate hadnât won since the 1980s, underscores the inroads Republicans made in the northern U.S. during the Obama era. And many of them have been overtly hostile to unions, from Toomey to Rick Snyder to Scott Walker (who aggressively pushed for a law that in 2011, stripped most ofÂ Wisconsinâs public-sector workersÂ of their collective bargaining rights).
Although Ohio has a Republican governor, John Kasich, and went for Trump in 2016, it has yet to become a right-to-work state. But John Boyd, director of labor and legal affairs for the Ohio Chamber of Commerce, has been claiming that with Michigan, Indiana and Wisconsin having become right-to-work states, Ohio is now at a competitive disadvantage. And when in January, officials in the township of West Chester north of Cincinnati were calling for aÂ local right-to-work law,Â Boyd noted, âFour out of the five states surrounding Ohio are now right-to-work.â The Ohio AFL-CIO, meanwhile, was vocal in its opposition to theÂ West Chester proposal.
The AFL-CIO has also been attacking proposals to make New Hampshire New Englandâs first right-to-work state. In January, the GOP-controlled New Hampshire Senate passed aÂ right-to-work bill,Â which the AFL-CIO, the National Education Association and the Teamsters denounced as âanÂ attackÂ on all working familiesÂ by special interests seeking to lower wages for everyone and undermine worker protections.â And New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu, a Republican and right-to-work for less advocate, would have signed it into law. But in February, the bill wasÂ defeatedÂ in the New Hampshire House of Representatives. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, unionization in New Hampshire has decreased fromÂ 11.1% in 2011Â toÂ 9.7% in 2015âand the bill, had it passed, would have likely brought that number down even more.
When the AFL-CIO and other critics of right-to-work laws describe them as âright-to-work-for-lessâ laws, they arenât merely being rhetorical; research demonstrates that right-to-work promotes inferior working conditions. In 2011, aÂ study by the Economic Policy InstituteÂ found that wages in right-to-work states were â3.2% lower than those in non-RTW statesâ and that the rate of employer-sponsored health insurance was â2.6 percentage points lower in RTW states compared with non-RTW statesâ¦.If workers in non-RTW states were to receive ESI at this lower rate, 2 million fewer workers nationally would be covered.â The study also found the rate of employer-sponsored pensions to be â4.8 percentage points lower in RTW states.â
Unions, in their 1940s/1950s/1960s heyday, were not only beneficial for union members, they were beneficial across the board because theyÂ set high standardsÂ in terms of pay, benefits and vacation time. When unionized plumbers, electricians, carpenters, and constructions workers enjoyed positive working conditions, many white-collar professions also tended to have higher standards even if they werenât typically unionized.
It is no coincidence that as union membership decreased in the U.S. in recent decades, overall conditions have worsened for both blue-collar and white-collar workers.According to Economic Policy Institute research, executives at large companies in the U.S. earned, on average,Â 296 times as muchÂ as their average workers in 2013 compared to only 20 times as much in 1965.
When Rep. Steve King introduced a bill calling for a national right-to-work law in 2015, it was merely symbolic; he knew that even if such a bill passed both houses of Congress and made it to the White Houseâs executive desk, President Obama would have vetoed it. But Republican proponents of a national right-to-work law now have a more sympathetic figure in Trump, although such a bill would need some Democratic support in the Senate in order toÂ survive a filibuster.Â Even without a national right-to-work law, Republicans will no doubt continue to attack unions at the state level. Presently, 28 states have right-to-work laws, and the more that number increases, the worse conditions will become for U.S. workers.
AlexÂ Henderson’s work has appeared in the L.A. Weekly, Billboard, Spin, Creem, the Pasadena Weekly and many other publications. Follow him on Twitter @alexvhenderson.
IMAGE:Â Thousands of protesters gather for a rally on the State Capitol grounds in Lansing, Mich., Tuesday, Dec. 11, 2012. The crowd is protesting right-to-work legislation that was passed by the state legislature last week. Â Michigan will become the 24th right-to-work state, banning requirements that nonunion employees pay unions for negotiating contracts and other services. (AP Photo/Carlos Osorio)