September 2015

Putting a Stop to the Right to Work Movement

I hope all ironworkers and their families enjoyed a safe and happy Labor Day. While we enjoyed time with our friends and family, we should not forget the origin of the holiday. Labor Day was born in a time of struggle for the labor movement, not unlike the time we are in today, and should serve as a reminder that the challenges we face as a union will not go away without action. Of the many threats faced by the Iron Workers and the broader labor movement, right to work laws are perhaps the most dangerous.

Right to work is on the march across the United States, appearing in state capitol after state capitol and requiring costly fights to stop it. We’ve defeated it in places, but have been defeated in turn in what we thought were union strongholds like Indiana, Michigan and Wisconsin. While most union members have heard the phrase “right to work” and understand it represents something bad, I’ve found in my travels many ironworkers and even union officers are confused as to what right to work actually is.

Who can blame them? “Right to work” is a deliberately misleading phrase meant to disguise the law’s true intent. As Martin Luther King said, right to work “provides no ‘rights’ and no ‘works’.” It is a complicated and confusing law that is not in workers’ best interests. Don’t be fooled.

If right to work were really for the benefit of workers, you would expect workers’ organizations to be behind it. In fact the opposite is true: right to work laws are pushed by billionaire corporations and CEOs. Organizations like the National Right to Work Committee claim to be nonpartisan nonprofits representing workers’ interests, but their funding can be traced back to anti-union organizations. Paid lobbyists push right to work laws in state capitols on behalf of these groups. Right to work is an attempt by the rich to get richer at the expense of the working class.

Right to work’s effects are serious. The law makes it harder for unions to collect dues, weakening the labor movement in right to work states. Wages, benefits and work standards fall as a result. Take a look in this directory issue of The Ironworker and compare the wage scales in right to work states to those in states that don’t have right to work. Right to work causes middle class families to make $5,000 less per year on average—a serious pay cut. Some folks pay for right to work with their lives: deaths on the job are 51 percent more common in right to work states. Right to work pushers claim the law is good for the economy, but studies do not show this to be true. There’s no upside to right to work for anyone who works for a living.

Think of what state governments could be doing that would really help the rights of workers. We have roads, schools and bridges that need building. Safety regulations need to be modernized, and the underground economy of exploited workers needs to be brought into the daylight. If our lawmakers want to help workers, they should put us to work rather than cut our pay.

As I said at the beginning of the article, right to work is on the move. Anti-union lobbyists are hard at work introducing bills in state legislatures across the country. They shove the bills through quickly, before unions have a chance to respond. When they can’t get the laws passed through the legislature, right to work backers push them on the local level. A national right to work law will be on the agenda if the next United States presidential election goes badly for working people.

Right to work is not inevitable. We can defeat right to work bills when they come up, and repeal them after they become law. We need to be educated and active to make this happen. Local union officers and political coordinators need to organize education campaigns to make sure ironworkers and their families understand the consequences of right to work. We have to reach beyond our union with these education campaigns: surveys show that less than half of the general public has heard of right to work, and even less understand it. Most importantly, we need to vote for candidates who will stand up for us when right to work bills come up. This November’s election will determine if Kentucky goes right to work. The 2016 elections will do the same for many other states across the country. This fight is too important for us to stay on the sidelines. Let’s get out and beat right to work.