Unless a miracle happens, Indiana (with approximately 11 percent of its workforce unionized) is going to become the 23rd "right-to-work" state in the U.S. (and the first one to take that dreadful plunge since Oklahoma did it, in 2001), making it illegal to require union membership as a condition of employment.
Traditionally, when a person hired into a "union shop," he or she was required to join up, and begin paying regular monthly membership dues. Given that union jobs generally offer 15-20 percent better wages and benefits (not to mention safer and superior working conditions), and are highly coveted, that requirement was viewed not only as a fair trade-off, but as a privilege. Indeed, people regularly compete for those union jobs.
Then, despite a flourishing middle-class and an economy chugging along at a record pace -- and national union membership rolls hovering at close to 35 percent -- the anti-union forces (alas, both Republicans and Democrats) mobilized and came up with the bumper-sticker concept of "right-to-work," allowing employees to work in a union facility without having to join the union. The states that embraced RTW were mainly in the Deep South and Southwest, which makes Indiana's decision noteworthy.
But give these anti-union zealots due credit. Their sappy, albeit close-to-meaningless phrase smacks of the same general good feeling conveyed by that "life, liberty and pursuit of happiness" reference in the Declaration of Independence. Right to work. Right to vote. Right to choose. Right to speak your mind. It's all good. Hell, who's going oppose something as basic the "right to work"? After all, this is America, isn't it?
Yet, if these RTW laws were actually examined, we might take a different view. In fact, our first order of business might be to suggest they be called "right-to-become-hypocritical-unAmerican-blood-sucking-parasite" agreements.
While it's true that workers who choose not to join the union can't run for union office, or be appointed to committees, or vote in union elections, they're still allowed to bury their greedy, non-dues-paying snouts in the union trough. These "free-riders" not only receive full union wages and benefits, they can file grievances when their contractual rights have been violated. Not too shabby an arrangement. Sort of like a draft-dodger insisting on being entitled to a Purple Heart.
Naturally, the business and political interests pushing these RTW initiatives make them sound as noble and quasi-altruistic as possible (remember "trickle-down economics"?), even though, in truth, they're doing nothing more high-minded than trying to hang on to their money. Apparently, the DNA that triggers a desire for lower taxes, greater profits, and Cayman Island bank accounts is intrinsic to human nature. Anyone doubting the veracity of this simplistic proposition need only observe the response of Toddler A when Toddler B attempts to take away a valued toy.
And this acquisitive impulse has nothing to do with necessity. Even with near-record unemployment, the Department of Commerce reported in November 2010, that U.S. companies just had their best quarter ... ever. According to the DOC, businesses recorded profits at an annual rate of $1.66 trillion in the third quarter of 2010, which is the highest rate (in non-inflation-adjusted figures) since the government began keeping records more than 60 years ago. All this while the middle-class continues to be chipped away.
But as selfish as businesses are, and as devious and monomaniacal as the Republican Party is in dedicating itself to crippling organized labor's political influence (labor was reported to have spent $400 million getting Obama elected in 2008), it's the workers themselves who cause the most heartburn.
Non-union workers who earn union wages and benefits -- but don't know why -- are not only ignorant, they're dangerous. The federal minimum wage is $7.25 per hour. Non-union forklift drivers who earn $40,000 a year in a union shop, but cling to the belief that they're doing it "on their own," are not only gaming the system, they're missing the point. They don't realize that without worker collectives and worker solidarity, the whole shebang would quickly devolve into "every man for himself," which is precisely what corporations dream about when they go to sleep at night.
Workers with limited skills and a high school education -- and without a labor union to back them up -- would find themselves in economic free-fall. Without outside help, they'd gradually slide all the way down until they hit the federal or state minimum. Not a pretty outcome. On the other hand, they would, of course, retain their "right" to work.
David Macaray, a Los Angeles playwright and author ("It's Never Been Easy: Essays on Modern Labor"), was a former union rep. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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