Working families in the U.S. are facing a new set of threats from right-wing corporate interests that are more harmful than anything we have seen in generations. A key part of this very deliberate strategy is the weakening of unions through the passage of so-called Right to Work laws. These laws limit the ability of unions to fund themselves by making it more difficult to collect union dues from members, which are used to fight for fair working conditions, elect progressive candidates, and push for policies that benefit working people.
The origins of Right to Work can be traced to the passage of the Taft–Hartley Act in 1947, which weakened the National Labor Relations Act of 1935. This gave individual states the ability to decide whether or not workers represented by a union had to pay dues. Since the passage of Taft–Hartley, 28 states have passed Right To Work laws. This wave of anti-worker legislation was launched initially in southern states as a way to maintain the existing racial order and to prevent workers of color from improving their working conditions. It is no coincidence that the first states in the U.S. to pass Right To Work laws were former slave states. Right To Work has since expanded its assault on states across the country, including those in the former industrial heartland with previously large levels of union membership, such as Indiana, Michigan, and Wisconsin.
The impact of Right to Work goes beyond unions, creating a race-to-the-bottom atmosphere that results in lower wages, fewer benefits, and more dangerous working conditions. Contrary to the myth that Right to Work increases prosperity, states that have passed Right to Work have not seen major economic growth.
In fact, working families across the country are in deep peril due to new Right to Work legislation and court cases that are advancing quickly. Earlier this year, Congressman Steve King of Iowa introduced the National Right to Work Act, which would effectively weaken all unions across the country, creating unspeakable damage to working families who need a voice on the job. Now, the court case Janus v. AFSCME is fast approaching the Supreme Court, seeking to strip public sector workers in the U.S. of their bargaining power.
The U.S. public sector is the last stronghold of organized labor with the highest number of organized workers compared to all other sectors of the economy. If Janus v. AFSCME succeeds, public sector unions will be devastated. Loss of membership also means loss of political power. It’s not only public sector workers who would suffer. Public sector unions fight for the common good – to keep our basic government services funded, from education to the postal service.
Why is it so important that unions retain organizing and political power? Throughout U.S. history, unions have been on the forefront of fighting for progressive change, whether it is pushing to end child labor, fighting for civil rights legislation, or advocating for comprehensive immigration reform. Unions are one of the strongest progressive institutions and are a critical counterbalance to corporate power.
In California, unions were the progressive force that brought about positive change following decades of conservative attacks on immigrants, people of color, and workers. Let us not forget that California, under the leadership of Governor Pete Wilson, passed Proposition 187 in 1994, which criminalized undocumented immigrant families. Throughout the 1990s, we saw conservative initiatives pass, from the three-strikes law to attacks on affirmative action.
Since then, strong coalitions of workers, communities, immigrants, environmentalists, and other progressives fought together to change the way that voters think about important issues. As a result, California has become a state that leads in progressive change, passing a tax on millionaires to fund our public schools, and granting undocumented immigrants the ability to attend college and obtain driver’s licenses.
Without major funding from unions however, several recent California propositions easily could have gone the wrong way. Prop. 53 saw single multi-millionaire family spend over $6 million to make it more difficult for our state to issue revenue bonds. Unions contributed $2.9 million against it, and the measure lost, 51% - 49%. Prop. 55 was the initiative that extended the tax increase on high-earners in order to continue funding for basic state services. Unions contributed $29.4 million for the measure, and it passed, 63% - 37%. Prop. 58, which was the repeal of the “bilingual ban,” undid the harm of the divisive Prop. 209. Unions contributed over $2 million and the measure passed, 74% - 26%.
All of these wins illustrate the spending power of unions in pivotal progressive measures. Where will the resources come from to defend ourselves after union incomes are decimated from Right to Work initiatives? The forces behind Right to Work know exactly what they are doing. By stripping away worker power, they also are drastically shifting the ability for progressives to fight back through union support.
The only way to stop the attack on workers, their families, and their unions is to organize. Unions must be proactive in reaching out to their members to build strength and prepare for the fight ahead. Communities must also be empowered and informed. We must understand the contributions that unions make to the larger progressive movement, and know that real resistance will require standing together to push back against the hateful agenda that is threatening to roll back all progress we have achieved over the last half century.