National “right to work” is coming. The forthcoming Supreme Court decision in Janus v. AFSCME could deal a devastating blow to public-sector unions by striking down their ability to collect mandatory dues from members. If the Court rules as expected, it will be the latest victory against collective bargaining for the rich and powerful.
“Right-to-work” laws, which already exist in 28 states, prohibit “agency shops,” which require that workers either belong to a union or pay a fee equivalent to union dues. The union must represent every worker covered by a workplace’s collective-bargaining agreement, regardless of their membership status—many in the labor movement call these non-members “free riders.” Right-to-work laws exist to deplete unions of resources, thus lowering standards for workers across the board and shifting power from workers to bosses.
The right wing has long had the total decimation of unions at the top of its agenda. In a fundraising letter written in April 2016, the insidiously named State Policy Network (an alliance of 66 anti-union think tanks) wrote that the purpose of making right-to-work the law in all 50 states was “permanently depriving the Left from access to millions of dollars in dues.” Dues are the lifeblood of unions’ ability to sustain their organization, fund new organizing projects, and provide resources to broader social-justice movements.
Union membership in this country is already at a historic low—just 10.7 percent of the workforce was unionized in 2016—and national right-to-work will be another crushing blow. Unions are understandably panicked by the onslaught of anti-worker legislation and bosses who refuse to play by the rules. But the labor movement itself bears some responsibility for the decline in worker power. As membership has plummeted, unions haven’t spent time adequately preparing to meet the challenges of today by organizing that builds fighting unions. Labor’s biggest gains have been made not when the law has been on our side but when workers have been most willing to stand up and fight.
Over the years there has been a pronounced shift from a model of social-movement unionism to service unionism. This means that critical decisions about things like contracts are made without much input from workers. Sure, the union will release a bargaining survey, and maybe even have a small committee of workers at the bargaining table. But at the end of the day, a small group of members and union staff often negotiate a contract on behalf of the majority of workers. An overall lack of worker engagement, union leadership’s reluctance to fight, and the austere times in which we live all result in workers’ making more and more concessions. When unions wind up with weak contracts, workers often grumble that “the union” got them a bad deal.