Posted by StreetWise in From the Streets
by Tom Suhrbur, Illinois Education Association, retired
In 1947, the Republican-controlled Congress, over the veteo of President Truman, passed the Taft-Hartley Act, which sharply curtailed the rights and power of unions. A major feature of the Act was a provision that allowed states to pass open shop laws. Dubbed “Right To Work” (RTW) by supporters, open shop laws prohibit unions from negotiating union security clauses. Union security contract provisions require workers either to join (union shop) or to pay agency fees (fair share) for the representation that they receive. Proponents of Open Shop laws argue that workers should have the “right to work” wherever they want without being compelled to join a union or having to pay fair share fees. They argue that “forced unionism” is an assault on workers’ “personal freedom.” Why should anyone be forced to join or pay fees to a union?
Since 1947, all of the Southern and many of the Western states have enacted RTW laws. Now, there is a major effort by Republicans to pass these laws in the Midwest – a union stronghold. Indiana, Wisconsin and Michigan have already done so. The newly elected governor, Bruce Rauner, has joined the Republican chorus calling for RTW in Illinois. Since labor unions are a major force in the Democratic Party coalition, most Republicans are enthusiastic supporters of such laws.
While the rationale for Open Shop is to protect the “freedom” of workers, these laws are really intended to undermine unions. The 15 states with the lowest rate of union membership have Open Shop laws. RTW laws embolden employers to fight vigorously against union organizing campaigns. They also weaken existing unions by encouraging non-membership and depriving unions of much-needed revenue. Given a choice, some workers will refrain from joining simply to save money. But, more importantly, many workers don’t join out of fear, especially when management expresses its hostility to the union. Despite the protection of the law, it is hard to convince workers to join a union when management so often retaliates against union activists. Union security agreements, on the other hand, remove the fear of joining. Since it is a requirement for everyone, individuals feel that they are not likely to be singled out by management. When a bargaining agreement includes a union security clause, most workers readily join.
RTW Laws Violate Democratic Principles:
What alternative do workers have to joining the union or paying fair share fees if they truly do not want a union? A union is certified to represent workers by a majority vote in a government-supervised election. In a similar vein, a union can be decertified. If 30 percent of the workers sign a decertification petition, the government will conduct an election to determine whether the union will continue to represent the workers. If a majority votes “no representation,” the union is out. Decertification elections are not usually successful. Faced with the choice, even non-union members in RTW states will vote to keep union representation. Workers can also de-authorize a union security clause in their contract through a similar election process. De- authorization elections are rare.
In effect, RTW laws circumvent this democratic decision-making process. The state governments allow individuals to enjoy the fruits of representation — including legal services –without contributing to the collective efforts of their co-workers. Under RTW, workers can simply opt out without taking any responsibility for the situation.
Democratic decision-making is a basic principle upon which American society rests. Are pacifists allowed to opt out of paying taxes that support the military? Can a childless couple refuse to pay taxes to educate our children? If citizens do not like government policies, what can they do? They can raise their voices, organize politically and vote to change policies but they cannot opt out. RTW violates this basic democratic principle.