Right to work or right to get ripped off?
We have so many rights in this country: we can peacefully assemble, we can criticize our government and its officials and, in some states, we can even smoke weed. In Michigan, residents now have the “right-to-work” thanks to the Michigan legislature and their passing of the Right-to-Work Bill. People have always had the right to work for the most part, but “right-to-work” is a term used to describe a law that makes it illegal to require non-union workers to pay union dues. A right-to-work law stands in many states and is poised to become law in others.
The right-to-work debate might seem like a hot, new topic making political rounds, but right-to-work legislation has been around for about 65 years with the passing of the Taft-Hartley Act in 1947. This law was a response to amend an earlier act that required all workers at a business to be members of the union representing them. In effect, Taft-Hartley opened the door to allow states to prevent unions from requiring all employees to pay union dues.
Today, federal law prevents anyone from being forced into a union in the United States, but some union scenarios work like this: Unions seek contracts that oblige all workers, union or not, to pay union dues in return for representation that fetches better pay and benefits through union-negotiated deals. This is where the right-to-work initiative steps in by making such contracts illegal. Thus, right-to-work legislation intends to give non-union workers the choice about whether they pay union dues regardless of whether they receive union benefits.
To right-to-work opponents, this is nothing short of union busting and is just another chapter in the long fight in which management has tried to KO labor. Claims have been leveled at purveyors of this legislation, scolding them for forcing wages lower, keeping benefits barebones, ignoring dangerous working conditions and leaving workers with questionable legal protections. And if that’s not enough, right-to-work opponents argue that as wages go down, less tax revenue comes in, negatively affecting a state’s economy.
Proponents of the right-to-work legislation reject such allegations. They claim that among the many benefits of a right-to-work state is that the economy gets a boost from being more competitive in the marketplace. Further, right-to-work states experience lower unemployment because salaries are lower and regulations and other obstacles are fewer, and that combination contributes to a more vibrant economy. But more importantly for some, right-to-work legislation provides freedom of choice for workers, and that, they believe, strengthens the foundation for personal liberty.
In the end, we find an argument that is social, political and economic, and each side has a labor vision for America’s – and maybe Ohio’s – workers. The arguments are passionate and well rehearsed. For some, it’s liberty and freedom versus workplace security and protection. For others, it’s simple math: the economy must grow and stay strong, and the only way to do that is to either keep the money flowing to the workers or ease regulations and employ more workers, even at lower wages. Regardless, it will be up to the governor and the legislature as to whether this fight will come to Ohio.
Debate Forum Question of the Week:
Because our neighbor Michigan recently successfully implemented right-to-work legislation, it’s reasonable to expect similar challenges to Ohio’s right-to-work status.In particular, should Ohio take Michigan’s lead and adopt right-to-work legislation that gives non-union workers the ability to opt-out of paying union dues?
Debate Forum Left:
The best example I know of right-to-work versus unions is in my primary industry – the music industry. In the last few recession-riddled years, professional orchestras have been heavily under fire from management to de-unionize under threats of closing doors and firing musicians. Unions have responded largely by standing their ground. However, the struggle between unions and employers is and always will be weighted in favor of the employer for one simple reason: Employers have more money, and therefore will last slightly longer than employees before they starve to death in the gutter.
Musicians have been particularly hard-hit with this unfortunate reality because eighty percent of professional musicians are living something close to paycheck-to-paycheck. Even with a full-time symphony job with benefits, most families with kids can’t go more than a few paycheck cycles without getting paid. Combine that with the fact that symphonies are by nature non-profit organizations – and therefore extremely vulnerable to fluctuations in the economy – the risks of working without a union is extremely dangerous.
As soon as the financial crisis hit, symphony administrations throughout the country used the situation to terrify musicians into breaking their unions under threat of simply dissolving the institution entirely. Ramifications of the recession were over-inflated and, as the entire nation was insecure about the future, those in positions of power had the psychological leverage to offer the bluff of total capitulation or Armageddon.
Alone and without a solid negotiating compact, this would have scattered the musicians like mice. However, the musicians’ union created a situation whereby three key factors were available to establish a salient:
1. Union reps provided a rallying point.
2. Union dues provided for the acquisition of a seasoned negotiator.
3. The American Federation of Musicians provided national networking among symphonies going through the same thing.
As a result of the union – and ONLY as a result of the union – musicians across the country were able to hold their ground against administrations set upon reaping ridiculous future leverage against their employees. Furthermore, while it was obvious to everyone that the current national fiscal climate would necessitate cuts in pay and benefits, the union representatives were able to negotiate reasonable, equitable and sustainable reductions that were in proportion to the crisis.
Now, it would be one thing if I were talking about my personal experience with unions, and this argument wouldn’t hold a tremendous amount of weight in the face of larger economic concerns. Opponents of unions decry them as anti-economic because they inhibit the ability of companies to maximize potential and create healthy competition. Of course this is true in some fields. The trucking industry is heavily unionized, and as a result the Teamsters have a stranglehold on the shipping of goods. My grandfather had a great quote regarding their union. When I asked him why, if the Teamsters made shipping so expensive, everyone didn’t simply switch to railroads, he took out a hammer and hit the nail on the head: “Son, even if you ran a train line to within 500 yards of WalMart the truckers’ union would charge the same amount to drive it from the curb to the door as they would to drive it across the country.”
We have a situation where, with the musicians, unions were essential to defending against the fear and tyranny of aggressive management during an economic crisis, and with the trucking industry we see a union that is able to impose its will upon its employers because they can effectively freeze out our economy. But should the state decide?
Now, I have worked in Colorado and South Carolina, respectively union and right-to-work, and I can tell you right now that a unionized state is about a billion times better for everyone who isn’t rich. The average standard of living for a musician in Colorado is well above that of South Carolina. Regional orchestras pay better, gigs are much less shady and you can actually count on getting paid for the work you do. Furthermore, in the event that something goes wrong, well …
Both the Colorado Symphony and the Charleston Symphony were in exactly the situation I described at the beginning of this article. Colorado is still up and running. Charleston was dissolved and reorganized to screw the musicians.
The union is the only protection against a superior employer negotiating position. All workers need their unions to preserve their security and basic working conditions. When I join an orchestra, I am entering into their organization as a participating and supporting member of their goals, and in a right-to-work state a symphony would be populated with an impossible mish-mash of union-supported and un-union supported members. And unfortunately, this is a pathetically weak negotiating position, because the union members have to negotiate on behalf of themselves as well as a bunch of people that don’t care in the slightest beyond saving a few bucks in union dues.
I cannot possibly decry right-to-work with any greater decibel. In each and every case I know where comparable industries exist, inevitably the right-to-work employees get far less than their unionized counterparts. Ohio shouldn’t even consider passing right-to-work legislation unless its citizens in the middle and lower classes are fully prepared to sacrifice themselves on the altar of the economic morality of the rich.
Benjamin Tomkins is a violinist, teacher, journalist, and critically acclaimed composer currently living in Denver, Colo. He hates stupidity, and generally believes that the volume of one’s voice is inversely proportional to one’s knowledge of the issue. Reach Ben Tomkins at BenTomkins@DaytonCityPaper.com.
Debate Forum Right
The right to work, an inalienable American right
It is 1962 and I find that I have qualified for my first job at the Kroger company as a sack boy. The prevailing wage at that time was $1 to $1.25 per hour if you worked in a drug store (remember Harry Bailey?) or numerous other jobs for high schoolers in a small business. But my new job paid $1.37 hourly, and in addition to achieving this princely sum, I was automatically enrolled as a member of the Retail Clerks union. I recall that a sizable chunk of my income was removed as an initiation fee and that the hourly rate may well have been below that which my friend made at the Pancake House after the financial extraction but, after all, that was the price of being a union member. I never wore a union jacket, participated in a strike or filed a grievance. In fact, I really never knew who or if anyone represented my interests as a sack boy. I just did my job and turned over the dues every two weeks.
During that era, however, the economic power of Dayton was declining. National Cash Register, scene of numerous strikes, was slowly shifting its labor force elsewhere after they repeatedly told the union bosses they could no longer afford sudden and repeated work stoppages. Those who were unlucky enough to be on Brown Street or South Main Street at 4 p.m. knew how busy the place was then. Recently, even the world headquarters – with Obama stimulus money – was moved to Georgia where, as a right-to-work state, according to Fortune magazine the company is hiring 500 new workers and intends to hire another 370 workers for jobs imported from overseas. Then, in 1982, McCall Printing, aka Dayton Press, closed its doors for the final time. In its heyday, it was the printer of over 40 different magazines, but had to deal with twelve separate labor contracts. It is now a vacant lot on McCall Street.
Is it any wonder then that the Rust Belt has given way to the Sun Belt where so many right-to-work states exist? The top ten states with the lowest unemployment rates are all right-to-work states. An example of why one party administration does not care about the level of unemployment lies in the story of Boeing in its attempt to shift jobs to South Carolina to build a more competitive 787 Dreamliner because of the threat of a strike by Seattle union workers. The national Labor Relations Board filed a complaint and asked a federal judge to relocate the jobs back to Seattle. One also must reflect on the fate of General Motors if the corporation had the luxury of hiring workers who were not union members. The footprints of both General Motors and Delco were of 15,000 lost jobs in the Dayton area. Such staggering losses result in a waterfall of lost businesses and jobs in the area as a whole. Apparently, many in Michigan feel that to be the case, recently becoming the 24th right-to-work state.
These are but two examples of how job loss in this once prosperous industrial city is a result of overreaching labor union practices. In the days when John Patterson built factories with large open windows and suggestion boxes for improvements in labor and management practices, contracts were often tendered over a handshake and the business owner and employee were most often responsible members of the community. Like Patterson and his workers, who built boats to rescue flooded Daytonians from their homes, particularly those in small business were concerned for the welfare of not only their families, but their neighbors and communities as a whole. But times have changes in several ways. Large corporations are often multinationals, caring for little for local civic concerns. Likewise, unions – including public service unions – are national, controlling the use of union dues to support the system. Although votes are held for work actions, when has a union asked the membership what political candidates should be supported? Multiple Supreme Court decisions (Beck v. CWA, 1988; Knox v. SEIU, 2012) upheld the right of workers not to support political activity with which they did not agree.
From public service unions to teacher’s unions to remaining service and industrial unions, the only issue is the rights of its members with little regard for the companies for which they work and the long term health (read Hostess here). Likewise, this from Albert Shanker, President of the American Federation of Teachers, “When school children start paying union dues, that’s when I’ll start representing the interests of school children.”
The right to bargain both individually and collectively has been recognized as a basic American right for most of the past 100 years. This does not mean that any collective has the right to deny meaningful labor to an individual because they do not belong to the club. Such behavior violates individual rights to contract for services and the pursuit of happiness, but also violates states’ rights under the 10th Amendment to supervise and regulate the local commonwealth.
It is time for Americans – whether they represent union members, company owners, doctors, lawyers, priests or housewives – to understand their allegiances start from their creator and extend to themselves as individuals, but not deny their responsibilities to be good family members, good neighbors and good citizens. This paradigm is the only way that we can heal the deep American wounds of division extant in the USA c.2012.
Reach DCP writer Dave Westbrock at Dave.Westbrock@DaytonCityPaper.com.