Despite organized labor being the central force behind fighting for higher wages, better healthcare for American workers, enhanced workplace safety and countless other advancements, unionism nonetheless remains the target of so-called Right to Work proponents.
The name “Right to Work,” first of all, is an inaccurate description. Its name implies that it gives American workers the right to work. Not so. Rather, it is an anti-union stance with a racist origin that says individuals can work in unionized facilities and have the OPTION of deciding to join the union. One component that they do NOT have to decide on is whether to accept the union benefits that were negotiated as part of the collective bargaining process. They don’t have to decide because they are automatically granted those perks by virtue of Right to Work legislation. So nonunion workers enjoy the same protection and benefits under Right to Work as their union counterparts, but without paying their share of the cost it took to negotiate those perks.
Such a divide-and-conquer process not only promotes dissention at the workplace, but the larger issue is its potential to splinter and weaken unions—and by extension, weaken minority communities. African-Americans are especially vulnerable to the reduction in unionism. The percentage of African-American males in particular who are represented by a union stood at 15.8 percent in 2014. That’s more than three percentage points higher than any other demographic.
Organized labor has long been the door through which African-Americans have walked their way toward middle class status. Historically, there have always been a higher percentage of African Americans in unions than African Americans in the entire workforce as a whole. Consequently, the battles waged against organized labor disproportionately affect the middle class standing of the African-American community.
Perhaps that’s not by accident. The origins of Right to Work can be traced back to the racially motivated premise of Vance Muse, an oil lobbyist from Texas who also happened to be a white supremacist and segregationist. He viewed organized labor as a communist front and ultimately led the anti-union fight in his state. Muse also looked at unions as a source of forced integration, and wanted no parts of that in Texas. He founded a group that led the Right to Work movement in Texas and other states.
That’s an interesting origin for a movement that now has supporters waving a dismissive hand at such a racial notion. They claim Right to Work is not, nor ever was, about discrimination; it is about choice, they say. It is about American workers having the individual right not to join a union—all the while never acknowledging the toxic and divisive grounds on which the movement began.
There are now 24 states that recognize Right to Work, and Wisconsin is primed to become the 25th. The expansion of Right to Work can erode organized labor in this country, and that’s not a good thing. Michigan’s union membership fell more than seven percent in the year following its adoption of Right to Work. Considering union jobs traditionally pay upwards of 20 percent more than nonunion jobs and offer better and more cost-effective healthcare coverage, the importance of fighting Right to Work has become a concern to us all.
Research shows that states with Right to Work laws have lower wages, lower rates of health coverage, higher poverty and infant mortality rates, less investment in education and higher workplace fatalities. That is not the America for which we in organized labor fought.
We must—and will—remain unified and stand strong against this continued attack on middle class America.