For the past year, public employees around the country have been under attack. With collective bargaining cast as a fiscal issue, private sector workers are encouraged to vent their economic frustrations at lazy government clerks living high on the hog off others’ hard-earned tax dollars. “We can no longer live in a society,” Scott Walker, then governor-elect of Wisconsin, argued, “where the public employees are the haves and taxpayers who foot the bills are the have-nots.”
But it turns out that the same forces that bankrolled the attack on public employees have also been advancing an agenda to eliminate unions for private sector workers.
Twenty-two states, predominantly in the old Confederacy, already have “right to work” laws—mostly dating from the McCarthy era. “Right to work” (RTW) does not guarantee anyone a job. Rather, it makes it illegal for unions to require that each employee who benefits from the terms of a contract pay his or her share of the costs of administering it. By making it harder for workers’ organizations to sustain themselves financially, RTW aims to undermine unions’ bargaining strength and eventually render them extinct.
With the Republican sweep of state legislatures in 2010, a coalition of corporate lobbies, right-wing ideologues and Republican operatives seized the moment to reach their long-sought goal of extending RTW into traditionally union-friendly parts of the country.
In 2011 RTW was promoted in eighteen states but adopted in none. As the new year gets under way, national attention has focused on Indiana as the best hope of antiunion lobbyists. Republicans have comfortable majorities in both houses of the Indiana legislature, and Governor Mitch Daniels is eager to sign a RTW bill. In March 2011 Democrats defeated RTW by fleeing the state—spending five weeks holed up in an Illinois hotel to prevent a legislative quorum. They returned only after Republicans promised that RTW would not be reintroduced in 2011.
As soon as the calendar turned over, the fight began anew, with the Republican leadership and the Chamber of Commerce declaring RTW a top priority. This time, Republicans have an added advantage. After the Democrats returned from Illinois, Republicans passed a law mandating fines of up to $1,000 a day for any legislator who skips town to prevent a quorum—and insisting that fines be paid by the legislators themselves. So far, the Democrats are bucking the pressure: on January 10 they walked out in protest once again. But with some representatives in danger of losing their homes, it’s unclear how long they will be able to hold out.
We live in an Orwellian time, and it’s not surprising that RTW is presented as a job-creation strategy. In Indiana, the bill’s prime sponsor insists that “we need to become a right-to-work state to help out those workers who are unemployed.”
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Like most business initiatives that purport to help the little people, this one starts with cutting workers’ wages. RTW is supposed to be a tool for luring manufacturers from one state to another. As the Chamber of Commerce explains, “unionization increases labor costs,” and therefore “makes a given location a less attractive place to invest new capital.” By giving up unions and lowering wages, workers increase their desirability in the eyes of manufacturers. This is the corporate lobby’s idea of economic policy: have people in every state compete for the lowest wages and crappiest benefits. Some location will inevitably win out, but in the end everyone’s wages will be lower and the number of jobs in the country will be exactly the same as before. If you wonder how income inequality got so extreme, look no further.