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The “Right-to-Work” Con


This piece will be appearing in newspapers in my conservative congressional district (VA-06).

When I was involved in electoral politics here in Virginia, I was advised by Democratic politicians to stay away from the issue of “right-to-work” laws. Most Virginias favor those laws, I was told. They think that “right-to-work” is a matter of “liberty,” and no one running for office can succeed in explaining to them what these laws are really about.

If that’s wise counsel, it’s a sad commentary on our politics — for it’s doubtful that most of the Virginians who support right-to-work understand how these laws take money out of their pockets.

In the U.S., roughly half the states have right-to-work laws and half do not. The evidence shows that right-to-work laws reduce the earnings of workers by a bit more than 3%, and that workers in right-to-work states are also less likely to benefit from employer-sponsored health care and pension coverage.

That might be OK if such laws were indeed “the price of liberty.” But these laws are not about liberty. Their real purpose is to tilt the balance of power in favor of employers at the expense of their workers.

The very first sentence in the Wikipedia entry on right-to-work laws describes them as “an effort to strengthen the rights of employers as management against employees; and to decrease union dues revenues while increasing their expense of representation (for employees who opt out of paying dues).”

Some whose ideology tells them that the market system metes out perfect justice see no reason to worry about the weakening of workers and their unions. Let everyone compete in the market. But in order to make an idol of the market system, one has to ignore both common sense and the history of labor in America.

Common sense should tell us that if workers have to deal one-by-one with a giant company, they will be on the short end of a huge imbalance of power between management, which is unified, and the workers, who are each on their own.

In every other contest of power – politics, war, etc. – the side that is unified and coordinated defeats the side that is fragmented. Why should labor-management relations be any exception?

The lessons of history bear this out.

American workers struggled to organize for more than a half century — between the rise of great industrial corporations in the latter half of the 19th century and the passage of laws in the 1930s protecting the rights of workers to form unions – and during that period American workers earned wages so meager that their families often were forced to live in squalor.

It was the unions that leveled the playing field and that enabled a great many American workers, in the decades following World War II, to rise into America’s burgeoning middle class. Thanks to their unions, auto-workers and steelworkers, for example, were able to own their own homes, educate their children well, and provide their families with a decent standard of living.

(Studies have shown that union power not only increases wages for members, but also has the collateral effect of boosting other workers’ earnings by an average of 11%.)

It is likewise clear that the more recent hollowing out of the American middle class tracks perfectly with the declining power of unions. As unions have weakened – with membership declining from one-third of workers to a mere one-tenth – the proportion of the national income going to wages has fallen to the lowest point in living memory.

What sense does it make, in such circumstances, to support right-to-work laws whose very purpose is to weaken unions and leave more money for their employers?

Many Virginians do not hold labor unions in high regard. And of course one can find reasons to criticize unions – a foolish rule here, corrupt leadership there. But all human institutions are flawed — big corporations no less than labor unions. (One need only consider how every industry that has discovered that its products have deadly effects – asbestos, tobacco, and now the fossil fuel companies – has chosen to protect its profits by deceiving people about the dangers rather than look out for the greater good.)

If we want justice, therefore, what we should look for is not perfect virtue but a balance of power. Great disparities of power are a recipe for injustice. (As a line from ancient Greece put it, “Right, as the world goes, is only in question between equals in power.”)

It is not only justice that would be served by getting rid of right-to-work laws, but also the well-being of the great majority of the people who live in right-to-work states.