By David K. Shipler
No political movement in America can match the dazzling facility with words mastered by conservative Republicans. From “death tax” to “pro-life,” they brand complex issues with simplistic slogans that slide easily into conversation. So it has been with “right-to-work” laws, just passed in Michigan, and now on the books in 24 states.
Like the “right to life,” the “right to work” is not a right but a diminution of a right, one that has contributed to the lowest labor union membership in decades, currently just over half the rate of thirty years ago. Only 6.9 percent of those employed in the private sector belong to unions, which are nearly extinct in the free enterprise economy. The unions’ last bastion is in government, where 28.1 percent of federal, 31.5 percent of state, and 43.2 percent of local government employees (mostly teachers, firefighters, and police officers) are unionized. This leaves the country’s overall union membership, public and private, at 11.8 percent, down from 20.1 percent when comparable data collection began in 1983.
The result is not a free market in labor but a rigged market, one in which the seller is relatively powerless next to the buyer. No seller of her labor to Walmart can bargain alone against the gargantuan buyer, the employer who unilaterally sets the price. Low-skilled workers, especially, are not in a position to negotiate individually; with no coin of professional talent to put on the table, they must bargain collectively or not at all.
If this happened in the private economy as a whole, if the playing field were similarly tilted so that the buyer of widgets could dictate low prices to the sellers, Republican evangelists of free enterprise would cry foul over a violation of the basic mechanism of the marketplace. Yet they have prohibited collective bargaining by unions of government employees in Wisconsin and elsewhere, and now in Michigan undermine unions’ abilities to fund their work.
Government is not totally to blame. The decline of organized labor is largely a symptom of a broad economic shift away from manufacturing, where unions were strongest. But government has stood in the way of their capacity to organize in the rising service sector.
Democrats share responsibility for this. When they controlled both the White House and Congress in President Obama’s first two years, they failed to enact a “card-check” law, which had been introduced repeatedly for more than a decade. It had drawn the support of a few Republicans from heavily unionized states, including the late Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, and was aimed at making organizing at workplaces easier than the secret ballot that employers could demand.
As fair and democratic as they sound, elections are often preceded by weeks of employer intimidation, threats, and transfers of workers who champion the organizing efforts. Bosses have summoned employees to anti-union information sessions, while barring union representatives from the premises to prevent them from making their pro-union pitch. So labor leaders want to replace elections with the card check, in which the union is designated as the employees’ representative once a majority of workers sign cards to that effect. Business groups, arguing that the system would open to door intimidation by unions, lobbied successfully against a 2009 card-check bill, which died after conservative Democrats balked.
Oddly, even in an election where the economy occupied a central place, the importance of unions was never made clear to voters. In all the talk about creating jobs, hardly a word was uttered—either by Mitt Romney or Barack Obama—about the kinds of jobs to be created: how much they would pay, what benefits they would provide, what security from dismissal they would guarantee, what their working conditions would be. These are issues that employees bargain over collectively, not individually, in workplaces where they are organized. In fact, many of the poor in America are working—in non-union jobs where the pay is desperately low. A single adult with three children, working a full 40 hours a week for 52 weeks a year, would have to make $10.63 an hour just to be at the 2012 poverty line of $22,050. The federal hourly minimum wage is $7.25.
Unions cannot operate effectively under “right to work” laws, which attack the management-labor contract providing for the unionized workplace where every employee is required to pay dues to the organization that represents him, securing his salary and his benefits. States with “right to work” laws make that illegal, so that a worker cannot be obligated to join or pay dues to a union, meaning that any employee can get union wages without paying the dues that enable the union to negotiate the wages in the first place.
That sounds appealing to an individualist, and it is touted by Republicans who pretend that it frees workers either to join or not. But the end result snuffs out choice, because the union at such a workplace is likely to disappear, leaving no union to join. Imagine citizens of a town having the option not to pay taxes, even as they benefit from protection by police and fire departments. If enough people opt out—either in that mythical town or in the very real workplace—the services will inevitably wither.
Unions can be irritating, as when teachers go on strike, sanitation workers don’t collect trash, pilots don’t fly. Ordinary folks are inconvenienced and annoyed when garbage piles up and flights are canceled. Parents and school boards are angered when unions, protecting job security, don’t play along with efforts to evaluate classroom performance and reward or punish teachers accordingly.
Strong unions have sometimes overplayed their hands. Their strikes sounded the death knell for some New York newspapers, and they resisted technological advances: For years, the printers’ union fought the labor-saving move from hot type to cold type. Featherbedding by unions required railroads to keep brakemen and firemen on the crews long after brakes were automated and steam engines were replaced by diesel and electric locomotives, as if men were still needed to apply brakes by hand and shovel coal into roaring furnaces.
With few exceptions, however, those days of heady unions throwing their weight around are gone. In the face of companies’ economic hardships, many labor leaders have made startling concessions on their members’ wages, pension plans, and job security. Some fledgling unions, representing janitors and parking garage attendants, for example, have so little clout that their members get poverty wages.
Yet the onslaught seems destined to continue until extreme radicalism can be voted out of statehouses and Congress—and hopefully out of the Republican Party.