“Right-to-work” vs. The right to work

Wisconsin is a pen stroke away from becoming the nation’s twenty-fifth “right-to-work” state. A bill bearing that Orwellian appellation will arrive on Scott Walker’s desk this Monday.

“Orwellian” because so-called right-to-work laws don’t establish employment as an affirmative right. Wisconsin’s Tea Party legislature hasn’t passed a job guarantee. Rather, the new law would provide workers in unionized shops the right to enjoy the higher wages that come with union representation, without having to pay the dues that sustain that representation.

The original right-to-work law was passed in 1947, under the less propagandistic title of “The Taft-Hartley Act.” A common misconception about contemporary “right-to-work” laws is that they prohibit unionized businesses from conditioning employment on union membership. In fact, that prohibition has been in place for nearly 70 years. Taft-Hartley ended the “closed shop” era of American labor.

But the law also required every union to provide all the benefits of union membership to the non-member employees of their shop. And these aren’t limited to contractual benefits secured through collective bargaining. As Forbes’ Rick Ungar explains, the union is also required to provide full legal representation for a non-member who alleges wrongful termination:

“So rock solid is this obligation that should the non-union member employee be displeased with the quality of the fight the union has put forth on his or her behalf, that non-union member has the right to sue the union for failing to prosecute as good a defense as would be expected by a wrongfully terminated union member.”

To compensate for this remarkable obligation, Taft-Hartley required these non-members to pay “agency fees,” which were defined as that portion of a union’s dues devoted to the costs of worker’s services, as opposed to the fraction invested in political action.

Walker’s law frees non-member employees of all obligations to their employer’s unions, while maintaining the obligations those unions owe to non-members. The result is a free-rider problem, and with it, diminishing union membership and political power.

Capital chases weak labor like lions chase arthritic gazelles. Or so the data most frequently cited by advocates of right-to-work seems to suggest. Between 2003 and 2013, the 24 right-to-work states added 2.1 million more jobs than the 26 others, and boasted a 12.3 percent greater increase in manufacturing GDP.

But there are costs to courting corporate investment through the cultivation of a pliant workforce. Right-to-work states have a higher concentration of low-wage jobs and lower median household income than other states. They also invest 31.3 percent less in education and experience a staggering 54.4 percent higher rate of workplace deaths.*

For decades, the Republican Party’s pitch to American workers has been that unions and government programs actually work against their own self-interest. By introducing uncertainty into the economy, these inefficient interlopers stymie the one true source of higher living standards: economic growth.

If America’s political system weren’t so thoroughly corrupted by the influence of moneyed donors, that pitch would need to be revised for 2016.

For the past four decades, American workers’ wages have failed to keep pace with their productivity. Since the year 2000, productivity has risen 23 percent while inflation-adjusted wages have essentially stagnated.

The financial crisis has made this divorce between workers’ productivity and wages more apparent. Virtually all the income gains produced by the last two years of economic growth have accrued to the one percent. Justin Wolfers of The Upshot finds that the average income of a one-percenter rose from $871,100 in 2009 to $968,000 by the end of 2013. That same period saw the average income of the remaining 99 percent of workers fall from $44,000 to $43,900.

The reality of elite economic domination has become so stark, even Larry Summers can see it.

A leading intellect behind the Democratic Party’s shift away from aggressive fiscal and regulatory policy, Summers now says that only government intervention can lift the struggling middle-class.

At a panel on “the future of work” hosted by the centrist Democratic think thank The Hamilton Project, Summers dismissed the idea that unemployment could be reduced through education and job training programs, arguing that the nation’s core economic problem is that:

            “there aren’t enough jobs, and if you help some people, you can help them get the jobs, but then someone else won’t get the jobs. And unless you’re doing things that are affecting the demand for jobs, you’re helping people win a race to get a finite number of jobs, and there are only so many of them.”

Summers argues that, rather than training workers for jobs that don’t exist, the government could more effectively reduce unemployment by simply paying people to do all the valuable work that the private sector lacks financial incentive to perform, like taking care of old people or repairing decaying bridges.

The Tea Party and the Teamsters may not agree on the economic ramifications of right-to-work laws, but there’s no controversy about their political consequences; by undermining unions, the laws undermine liberal political organizing and fundraising.

If Summers’ analysis is correct, and full employment can’t be achieved without increasing government investment, then the most vital function of organized labor for the American working class may be its political one. At a time when the top one percent own more than a third of the country, and a couple objectivist oil tycoons plan to spend nearly a billion dollars on our next election, workers need organized labor to counter the political dominance of organized capital.

The G.O.P. goes into 2016 seriously handicapped by its slavish commitment to the interests of America’s most sociopathic oligarchs. A Pew Poll released this week found that 62 percent of Americans believe “the economic system unfairly favors powerful interests.”

Whether Democrats are able to take advantage may depend on the capacity of an emaciated labor movement to counter the influence of the party’s own plutocratic (but pro-choice!) contingent.

On Monday, Scott Walker will make that movement a little less capable.

*All these statistics need to be taken with a dollop of soy sauce.

For one thing, right-to-work states proliferate through the south and Midwest, where wages have long lagged behind those of the more heavily industrialized northeast. Such states also boast lower land and living costs, which entice business investment irrespective of labor policy. The stronger growth of jobs and productivity in these states is less impressive when one considers the possibility that they’re merely catching up with their more urbanized peers.

Still, the data seems to broadly support the logical supposition that undermining unions weakens labor, which encourages capital investment, which creates a high number of low-paying jobs.

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