Posted In: Uncategorized, Workers' Rights
by Félix Pérez
A loosely structured national network of extremist governors and state legislators bankrolled by little-known wealthy donors and corporate captains has launched a multistate, legislative blitzkrieg this year to silence the voice of workers, driving down wages and adding to the economic vulnerability of the middle class.
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Emboldened by so-called right-to-work laws passed last year in Michigan and Indiana, legislators in five states — Colorado, Maine, Missouri, New Hampshire and Pennsylvania — have introduced similar legislation this year.
Lawmakers in two states that already have right-to-work laws, Iowa and North Carolina, are seeking to enshrine the laws in their state constitutions. In Ohio, right-to-work organizations and business groups are continuing to collect signatures to place the issue on the ballot. And in Virginia, the Senate barely defeated a resolution that would have referred the state’s right-to-work law to the ballot to place it in the constitution.
“It’s pretty clear, just from what we see going on in the landscape, that it’s being put forward by governors and legislators supported by conservative funders, the Koch brothers [David and Charles] primarily, who want to push an anti-union agenda nationally,” said Sherry Linkon, a working class studies scholar. Linkon was involved in 2011 in successfully repealing Ohio Gov. John Kasich’s law that would have stripped public employees of their right to advocate in the workplace and for their communities.
Another deep-pocketed donor, Amway heir Dick DeVos, was heavily involved in the passage of Michigan’s right-to-work law. The Michigan Freedom Fund, a group funded largely by DeVos and run by one of his employees, ran a $1 million advertising campaign to support the right-to-work legislation. The DeVos family also contributed $2 million last year to defeat a Michigan ballot proposal that would have protected collective bargaining by enumerating it as a right in the state constitution.
Linkon, a professor of English at Georgetown University, editor of Working Class Perspectives blog and until recently co-director of Youngstown State University’s Center for Working-Class Studies, said, “We can directly connect the dots. I think we can tie this to a national effort, to a historical effort that has been going on for a while. It really took off two years ago with the Ohio and Indiana and Wisconsin anti-union laws.”
Linkon said right-to-work advocates are deliberately targeting states with high union density and teacher unions “to reach a critical mass” arrayed against organized workers.
Anti-worker strategists have “created the illusion” that right-to-work laws are necessary to induce employers to create high-paying jobs, said Linkon. Not true, according to research. In fact, right-to-work laws decrease the wages of union and non-union workers by $1,500 a year.
Linkon continued, “All of the rights and protections that unions won, such as workplace safety, health care, and paid leave, can easily be taken away from all workers without unions to protect them. And we are seeing that happen, especially with health care.”
Opponents of right-to-work say it does nothing to create jobs or restore balance to the middle class or the economy. Instead, they contend, it contributes to a highly dysfunctional political system. They argue that right-to-work laws are a partisan power grab by legislators designed to satisfy corporate donors and punish political opponents.
One group heavily involved in pushing right-to-work model legislation is the American Legislative Exchange Council, or ALEC. According to the Center for Media and Democracy, the right-to-work legislation recently introduced in Pennsylvania and Michigan’s legislation are strikingly similar to ALEC’s model bill. Missouri’s bill is largely identical as well. Tellingly, Republicans control both houses of the Pennsylvania Legislature and the governor’s office, as they do in Michigan.
Some in the mainstream news media are beginning to take notice of the politically motivated attacks. An editorial in the Kansas City Star summed up Missouri legislators’ right-to-work crusade this way:
Lawmakers could better spend their time working on health care, education or other truly significant issues. Instead, key lawmakers and leaders are preoccupied with bills seeking to make Missouri a right-to-work state, and in both states to forbid unions to automatically deduct dues from paychecks, even if union members request it. The unnecessary attacks on unions demonstrate how susceptible state legislatures are to outside forces.
While publicly scolding state lawmakers over “unnecessary attacks” has not proven to be the most effective strategy, Linkon said the repeal of the anti-collective bargaining law in Ohio is an example of how workers and communities can push back and win. “The work in Ohio and the organizing around SB5 was an example where it wasn’t just unions, but it was parents, the faith community, police and firefighters, and others, community by community. It was an occasion where public sector unions and private sector workers worked closely together.”