Republicans Launch Federal Battle to Undermine Trade Unions
Bill Fletcher Jr. says the right to work legislation is aimed at keeping down the living standard of workers
SHARMINI PERIES: It’s The Real News Network. I’m Sharmini Peries, coming to you from Baltimore.
On Wednesday the Republicans introduced national legislation that would prohibit workers from being required to be a member of their union at their workplace. This type of national legislation seems to go against the very nature of the Republican Party that normally supports giving the states the right to govern over these issues, not the federal government. If enacted the legislation would be a major challenge for organized labor in this country, by weakening unions throughout the nation.
Representative Joe Wilson, Republican from South Carolina, and Steve King, Republican from Iowa, sponsors of the legislation, said that joining a union should be the worker’s choice. Wilson said that, “At least 80% of Americans are opposed to forcing employees to pay dues as a condition of their employment. And our bill would protect workers by eliminating forced use clauses in federal statutes.”
Twenty-eight states have passed Right to Work laws, which is allowed under the National Labor Relations Act. The most recent to have adopted them is, Wisconsin, Kentucky and West Virginia. Missouri is expected to adopt the legislation this month.
So, why do we need federal laws when there are already states adopting such laws? On to talk about this with me is, Bill Fletcher, Junior. He has worked for several labor unions and he has served as a senior staff person in the National AFL-CIO. His latest book is, “They Are Bankrupting Us: And 20 Other Myths About Unions”. Thanks for joining me, Bill.
BILL FLETCHER JR: Always a pleasure.
SHARMINI PERIES: Bill, the Right to Work legislation, it really sounds as if it is a measure to protect the jobs of workers. Tell us about the legislation, and who does it benefit?
BILL FLETCHER JR: So, Right to Work has nothing to do with a right to work. It has nothing to do with a right to a job. It was orchestrated in the late 1940s as a way of weakening unions. And it created this very bizarre classification whereby a union, which is obligated by law to represent all workers, in what’s called a bargaining unit. Irrespective of union membership, can do that and workers are not obligated to pay a fee or dues.
So, the way to think about it, Sharmini, is like this. Let’s say that there was a city, let’s call it Baltimore, where the mayor says that, “Beginning immediately, paying taxes is voluntary. But every citizen of Baltimore will be entitled to free public education, sanitation, water, sewer, police and fire.” Is there any city that could ever imagine doing something like that? The answer is no. And that’s essentially what Right to Work is, that it is denying unions the ability to get resources, even when they have to expend them on people who are not in the union. It’s absolutely ridiculous and it’s all aimed at undermining the power of unions.
SHARMINI PERIES: Who does it benefit then?
BILL FLETCHER JR.: Oh, it benefits the employers. What you can see over the years, Right to Work basically emerged in the South and the Southwest, and it was partly constructed as a way of weakening unions. Because the ruling groups in those states understood that unions, not only were important for workers, in general, but they were also important for people of color, large concentrations in the South of African Americans, in the Southwest of Latinos.
These wealthy owners wanted to make sure to weaken the organizations and therefore, they instituted, or moved Right to Work. It basically cripples unions by forcing unions to take limited resources and use them on workers who are not contributing. I mean, it’s brilliant in its simplicity, and there’s no other institution in the United States, none, that falls into that category. There’s no institution where people are entitled by law to receive certain benefits, yet are not obligated to make some sort of financial contribution.
SHARMINI PERIES: Now Bill, if different states have already adopted this so-called Right to Work legislation, why do we need national legislation of this sort that’s being introduced today?
BILL FLETCHER JR.: Oh, very clearly, because they want to annihilate unions. I mean, they’ve been pretty straightforward about that. Ever since 2011 and the attack in Wisconsin on unions, the Republican party has been more than open that they seek to eliminate trade unions. And so they look at this moment, with the election of Trump, with the Republican Congressional majority, and with a Supreme Court nominee who is not exactly known as being a progressive, they look at this as the moment to take unions out.
SHARMINI PERIES: And I guess the final picture here is, are the unions, these current labor organizing unions that are already in place, like the one you had been working for, what are they planning to do about this, and what should workers be gearing up for here?
BILL FLETCHER JR.: I think the workers need to be gearing up for a major fight. And that fight really revolves around the importance of unions as a central mechanism for raising the living standard of working people. I mean, that’s what’s really at stake. If you’re not interested in your living standard going up, then you can take a pass on this debate. If you are interested, then you have a direct concern, or should have a concern, about this Right to Work legislation.
What the unions are doing, Sharmini, at this point it’s unclear. I think that some have begun work to educate their members, to make sure that their members fully understand what’s at stake and why unions are so necessary, and why individuals must contribute. But I think that what’s missing, and has been missing, is the failure of too many unions to connect the right to organize and join unions, with the fight around economic justice.
Now, for you and me this may seem self-evident that that connection exists, but unfortunately, too many unions have treated this, or at least it appears to be an institutional concern, rather than concern to raise the living standard of working class people.
SHARMINI PERIES: Bill, when President Obama was running for office in 2008, and again in his second term, there was the promise that EFCA, Employee Free Choice Act, would be introduced and this would be one of his hallmarks in terms of his presidency. That didn’t happen. Why didn’t it happen, and would that have protected workers against this kind of legislation we’re seeing now?
BILL FLETCHER JR.: Yes, it would have helped, although, keep in mind, Congress can do all kinds of things. So, with the election results of November 8, 2016, you get what we have. But the first part of your question, I’d say this, yes, Obama ran with that promise, why it didn’t happen is a combination of a) divisions within the Democratic Party, and b) a failure of the union movement to treat the campaign for the Employee Free Choice Act, as a campaign that needed to be a true national campaign, as opposed to an inside the Beltway campaign.
With regard to the first point, the Democratic Party was very divided. While Bush was in office, many Democratic senators and congress people could argue in favor of EFCA, and feel that they had really nothing to lose. Once they were in the majority however, they came under serious pressure from the business community. And that’s when a number of these senators in particular, started to buckle.
Within the union movement, the problem is that too many union leaders thought that this was really a matter of lobbying, and advertising, as opposed to connecting the fight for unionization with what was going on at that time, the Great Recession. I would argue, too, Sharmini, that had they taken a broad view of this, had they really looked at this as a fight for economic justice, I think we could have won, won big. But it was not being presented that way, and it just got very convoluted.
SHARMINI PERIES: All right, Bill, we’ll be following the passage of this act, as I’m sure you will be. And I look forward to having you back. Thank you so much for joining us today.
BILL FLETCHER JR.: My pleasure. Thank you very much.
SHARMINI PERIES: And thank you for joining us here on The Real News Network.