Emboldened by the frenzied first
days of single-party control of the federal government, Republicans in Congress
took aim on Feb. 1 at a longtime target – working people.
Reps. Steve King of Iowa and Joe Wilson of South Carolina introduced a bill in the House of Representatives to enact a national right-to-work law, legislation aimed at destroying unions that would likely lower wages across the county. Two days later, White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer indicated that Donald Trump supports the bill, something he made no secret of during last year’s presidential campaign.
“We all know exactly what the made-up phrase ‘right-to-work’ really means,” said International President Lonnie R. Stephenson. “It’s an all-out assault on working people and unions disguised as some sort of fight for freedom. Well, we’re not going to fall for it at the IBEW.”
The laws, already in force in 28 states—most recently in Kentucky, West Virginia and Missouri—prohibit union security agreements, which require workers to contribute to the costs of collective bargaining and legal representation provided by the local on their behalf. Axing dues requirements leads to freeloading, union leaders say.
“Imagine you’re a member of a hunting club, and somebody passes a law tomorrow saying I can walk into your club and use your facilities, drink your beer, shoot all the deer I want on your land, but you can’t charge me a dime in membership fees,’” said Fourth District International Representative Neil Gray. “Plus, I can sue you if I think you treated me unfairly.
“You wouldn’t like that very much, would you? Well, right-to-work works the same way.”
In right-to-work states, workers at union-represented shops can opt out of dues payments, unfairly putting the burden for representation costs on their co-workers while still reaping all of the benefits of belonging to a union.
“The IBEW and other unions are required by law to go to bat for every single worker in a bargaining unit,” Gray said. Whether it’s negotiating a contract or sending staff and lawyers to represent an employee if they’re unfairly disciplined or fired, union dues are the only way to ensure those services are available.
“The real aim of right-to-work is to cut off funding to the union, depleting your local’s treasury to the point it can’t represent you effectively,” said Dan Gardner, an international representative in the Political and Legislative Department. “That changes the balance of power in negotiations with an employer, and it results in you losing money.”
Studies show that working people—union and nonunion—in right-to-work states earn 12 percent less than workers in neighboring states because unions raise the baseline for everyone. That’s more than $6,000 dollars less per year on average. Workers in right-to-work states are also more likely to be uninsured than those in free-bargaining states (13 percent vs. 9.4 percent), meaning taxpayers foot the bill for more hospital services.
Perhaps most importantly, weakening unions tips the scales of power in favor of big corporations, which means laws mandating basic workplace safety protections and fair wages are often among the first things to go out the window.
“President Kennedy said back in the 1960s, ‘A rising tide lifts all boats,’ and that’s the effect that unions have on wages and workplace conditions,” Gardner said. “When a union electrician gets a raise, other folks end up getting one too if their employers want to stay competitive. We have a positive effect on a state’s average wages whether we’re 5 percent of the working population or 50 percent.”
In a government report out in January, statistics showed union membership fell nationwide to its lowest level on record in 2016: just 10.7 percent of the total U.S. working population. That’s in large part thanks to the recent surge in right-to-work laws. Since Michigan and Indiana in 2012, Wisconsin, West Virginia, Kentucky and Missouri have adopted the laws, and New Hampshire looks poised to join them.
Right-to-work doesn’t mean the end of unions, but in those states where the laws haven’t been adopted, workers are two and a half times more likely to be covered by a collective bargaining agreement. That’s why the Republican Party’s platform has been calling for a national right-to-work law for the last two presidential elections.
“These Republican politicians like to talk a lot about states’ rights, but that only applies when they’re out of power in Washington,” Stephenson said. “Now that they’re in charge, they’re happy to trample on states who understand that the power for working people to join together and collectively bargain is a huge benefit to the economy. We’re going to do everything we can to stop this bill and the others like it that are surely coming.”
King has also introduced a bill with Sen. Mike Lee of Utah calling for the full repeal of Davis-Bacon prevailing wage requirements for all federally-funded projects. That could mean huge pay cuts for union construction members on highways, hospitals, schools and more. A similar bill was introduced Jan. 24 by Sen. Jeff Flake.
Find your representatives in Congress at www.whoismyrepresentative.com and ask them to fight against right-to-work and Davis-Bacon attacks in Washington.
Homepage Photo of Speaker of the House Paul Ryan used under a Creative Commons license from Flickr user Tony Alter