Saturday, February 7, 2015

Life, Liberty & "Right to Work?"

Life, Liberty, and “The Right to Work”…?

No profession can generate as many disarming and cleverly masked euphemisms as our politicians.

Think of Clean Coal Energy (Thank you, US Senate 1980). 
How about much-needed Pension Reform? (Thank you, Representative Nekritz). 
Did you enjoy your Enhanced Interrogation? (Thank you, Donald Rumsfeld)

And, of course, don’t you deserve the Right to Work?

In the first of many shots across the bows, Governor Rauner has launched his anti-union campaign by calling for “Right to Work” Sectors in the state; only Rauner has discarded the old coinage for a new doublespeak called Empowerment Zones.

Regardless, terming it Empowerment Zones or Right to Work, the anti-union concept has been around for an incredibly longer time than you might have expected.

In fact, Right-to-Work Laws (1947) were a galvanic, conservative reaction to FDR’s National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) enacted in 1935, which established most private sector workers’ rights to unionize, bargain collectively over wage agreements, working conditions, and benefits.

Included in the language of this 1935 act (also known as the Wagner Act), there existed union security agreements that required every individual covered by a collective bargaining agreement/contract to pay dues to the negotiating labor organization. 

After the Second World War, a period of conflict during which labor unions foreswore strikes to assure the nation’s ongoing war efforts, increases in both union demands for fair wages and subsequent picketing increased.  In short, labor began pushing again.  The result was a response by Republican members of Congress representing industrial concerns, which objected vehemently to unionization: enter stage right, the Taft Hartley Act of 1947. 

The Taft Hartley Act amended the NLRA to allow individual states to supersede the union security provisions of the NRLA by enacting their own laws prohibiting union security agreements.  These state edicts are known as Right-to-Work Laws.

The original NRLA of 1937 was upheld in the U.S. Supreme Court in 1937, and earlier federal acts secured unionization rights to railway workers (1926) and as well prevented federal judicial intervention in labor strikes for arbitrary reasoning.
Prior to that time, judges at any level who wanted to help a wealthy friend could enter an injunction against a striking labor union, regardless of working conditions, etc. 

While the original rationale of the National Labor Relations Act by FDR was to connect the ability to bargain collectively with the likelihood of a better and more productive workforce, the Taft Hartley Act of 1947 changed much of that through amendment.  In fact, it was a reactionary bill crafted to assert the rights of management in dealing with the employees, the prohibition of closed shop union arrangements, the prevention of secondary strikes following faux settlements, etc.  Moreover, it offered the inclusion of an opt-out for states wanting to find an alternative to the original NRLA bill’s intentions by offering a Right-to-Work alternative – either through legislation, a ballot initiative, or an amendment to the state's constitution.

Acting President Truman was not courteous with his words in response to the bill, which he summarily vetoed.  We have been told, by the supporters of the Taft-Hartley bill, that it would reduce industrial strife.
On the contrary, I am convinced that it would increase industrial strife.
The bill would soon upset security clauses in thousands of existing agreements between labor and management. These agreements were mutually arrived at and furnish a satisfactory basis for relations between worker and employer. They provide stability in industry. …
The bill would increase industrial strife because a number of its provisions deprive workers of legal protection of fundamental rights” (

When Taft-Hartley passed – over the veto by President Truman – eleven states quickly jumped into the Right-to-Work mode, and (this makes sense) most were agriculturally based in their primary economic production.  Historically speaking, pickers and farm workers were the least paid – especially in the South (AZ, AK, GA, IA, NE, NC, ND, SD, TN, TX, VA).  Florida had passed a similar bill in 1943 which was validated by the Taft Hartley Act.  Twenty-four states now have RTW legislation.

In the Midwest, Indiana joined the Right-to-Work states in 2012, and Michigan recently joined in 2014 – the first two of the great industrial belt states to join.

Now, new Governor Rauner is calling for the use of Empowerment Zones (Right –to-Work areas) for Illinoisans to benefit from what he believes economically positive happening in Indiana and Michigan.  As Rauner has emphasized, our neighboring “states are kickin’ our tail” when it comes to employment and job growth…and this could be the answer? 

You'll also hear or read Rauner's repetitive and deceptive use of the phrase "closed shops" to characterize today's public unions in Illinois.  Originally "closed shops" described unions that demanded membership before any consideration of employment.   In truth, my own experience as a member of the IEA seems more like "agency shops," allowing an employee to refrain from joining a union but asking for a determined payment for the cost of negotiating a contract under which the same person benefitted.  Our school always had a very few of these mavericks, for most of us realized the gains in collective bargaining and were willing to pay for our protections in the classroom and at home.

And, suddenly on February 9th, new Governor Rauner has decreed an executive order to eliminate the "fair share" law that created the "agency shop" concept in my schools and for all other current public workers. As Fred Klonsky notes, thus far the Democratic response to the edict has been cautious - not a hoped-for reaction.  AFSCME Executive Director Roberta Lynch is more direct, "“It is crystal clear by this action that the governor’s supposed concern for balancing the state budget is a paper-thin excuse that can’t hide his real agenda: Silencing working people and their unions who stand up for the middle class. Our union and all organized labor will stand together with those who believe in democracy to overturn Bruce Rauner’s illegal action and restore the integrity of the rule of law.”

….In fact, measuring the effect of RTW laws on anything except broad generalized perspectives yields little but a variety of contrary confusions.  In other words, economists see so many possibly influential variables within empirical studies and comparisons state-to-state that any justification of Right-to-Work Laws that politicians like Rauner propose is both elusive and unlikely.

 Generally speaking, most research does agree that passage of RTW laws has a decidedly negative influence on unionization rates overall.  Of course, we know this eventual outcome falls perfectly in Rauner’s wheelhouse, but when it comes to economic outcomes like job growth and wages, “the findings have been mixed and there is no broad consensus on the magnitude (if any) of the effects of these laws” (  Did RTW positively affect North Dakota and lead to discovering oil fields?  Not likely.  Did Boeing ship building contracts to a southeastern RTW area because of cheaper costs, and then reverse that decision for a better workforce in a unionized state? The economies of states are not static - they shift and fluctuate with the weather, use of natural resources, the educational/working proficiencies of the people, discovery, middle class strength, etc.  Assigning credit to a single dubious practice is an oversimplification.

And, looking back at the general trend of dropping unionization rates and the passage of RTW laws, declines in union participation were existent in states before their passage of RTW laws (Idaho: 23.1% unionized in 1981; 12.2% unionized in 1985 - when RTW was passed). 

Rauner’s folksy scolding that states around us have been “kickin’ our tail” may be true, but if it hinges on the passage of Right-to-Work laws (or Empowerment Zones), only a politician would declare a simple cause and effect relationship; a serious economics specialist would steer clear away.

Next:  So, if it is, why is Indiana kickin’ our tail??

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