Right to Work Laws – More than Just a Union Matter

Karen Parker


“In our glorious fight for civil rights, we must guard against being fooled by false slogans, such as ‘right to work.’ It is a law to rob us of our civil rights and job rights. Its purpose is to destroy labor unions and collective bargaining…” (Martin Luther King Jr.)

Americans are losing ground. There are more people living in poverty now than any time since the Great Depression. The rise of the middle class after the Depression is partially attributed to the fact that unions grew in strength and number. For a number of reasons unions are now under attack. Many in corporate America would like to see them disappear completely. Fifty years ago, one third of the U.S. workers belonged to unions. The percentage now is less than 12%. In the private sector, unions are at 6%. The public sector, which is the last stronghold for unions, is systematically being destroyed state by state, beginning in Wisconsin in 2010 and dusting off the 1940s/1950s concept of   “right to work” (RTW) laws. The destruction of unions means a lower quality of life for not only middle class workers, but all workers. Workers in states with right to work laws have a consistently lower quality of life than other states – lower wages, higher workplace fatalities, higher poverty, less access to health care and poorer education for children.

Right to work laws are intentionally misleading. They are touted as a way for states to promote economic growth.  Right to work laws sound like a good thing when in fact these laws do not guarantee anyone a job. What they do is forbid contracts between unions and employers that require all employees in the workplace to pay the union to bargain on their behalf. U.S. law requires that unions represent all employees within a bargaining unit even those who choose not to join the union. Employees in unionized workplaces do not have to join the union but must pay “fair share” or “agency” fees. These fees are reduced amounts charged to workers who opt out of union membership, yet continue to receive the union representation and bargaining services that benefit all employees and unions are required to provide. Right to work laws deny unions the right to collect fair share fees even though they must still provide the same services to the worker who opt out of the union. This provision directly limits the financial viability of unions, reducing their strength and ability to negotiate favorable contracts, higher wages, and better benefits. Similarly, by diminishing union resources, a RTW law makes it more difficult for unions to provide a voice on policy issues ranging from unemployment insurance to workers compensation, minimum wages, and other policy areas. The reality is that RTW laws undermine better wages and benefits for all workers in that state. The battle created by RTW laws attacks the union, not only from the outside, but also from within by those who choose to not join the union or those who quit paying dues and become free-riders.

Corporate America and anti-union conservatives are backing these laws. According to Joe Burns in Reviving the Strike: How Working People Can Regain Power and Transform America, even though  unionization is at  its  lowest level since the early 1900s, many conservatives want the United States to have no unions and capitalism would rule ( p. 182).  In 2010, anti-labor conservatives launched a coordinated offensive against the last remaining stronghold of unionization, the public sector. Public employee unions represent workers at every level of government – federal, state and local. This category includes teachers, firefighters, police officers, postal workers and any other employee of the government at any level. In state after state, Republican dominated legislatures introduced legislation to restrict the ability of public sector unions to collectively bargain. Part of the reason there continues to be these repeat attacks is the fact that in recent years the Supreme Court overturned the ban of direct corporate contributions to political campaigns, opening the door to big money corporations lobbying for RTW laws (Scheiber, Noam, et.al 2018). The anti-labor conservatives seek to privatize public education, gut health and safety laws, and wipe out a century of progressive taxation.

The attack on unions affects more than union members, it affects society as a whole. In his book Why Unions Matter, Yates writes, “What organized labor lacks is working class ideology, a labor-centered way of thinking and acting which is based on upon the understanding that a capitalist society is not and cannot be a just one” (p.  205).  He contemplates what might motivate workers to become part of a movement to rise above the current system to create a new democratic, egalitarian society. Similarly, in the book Against Labor: How U.S. Employers Organized to Defeat Union Activism, Rachleff links civil rights with labor rights. The dialog includes not only the struggles for worker’s rights but also “inequities along racial, gender, national, and class lines, inequities that have shaped the American experience since its origins” (p.  245). The United States and the world cannot flourish when there is a mindset that there must be the “haves” and the “have nots

The upcoming ruling on Janus v. American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) by U.S. Supreme Court may act to weaken public-sector unions’ ability to collectively bargain. This is not the first case brought before the Supreme Court; there have been other cases presented for purpose of busting unions. If the Janus case is denied, what will be the next attack? What is the future of labor unions? Is it just labor unions that are being attacked by corporate America or is there more to the story?

The East Side Freedom Library is a space where one might look to get answers to these questions. Co-Director Peter Rachleff states, “The East Side Freedom Library is a Labor Hall for Community, Immigrants and Unions. In addition to many books  about labor unions past and present, the library offers programming to focus on the concerns of unions, solidarity, living wages, equal rights, immigration and much more.” You can find events on the library’s website //eastsidefreedomlibrary.org/events/ .

Karen Parker is a telephone specialist in the Technology Department of ISD 192.  She is President of EdMN Local 7313 in Farmington, Minnesota.  She is also a BA student in Individualised Studies at Metro State University, with a focus in Global Humanitarian Perspectives and a minor in Civic Engagement.  This semester, she is conducting  an internship at the East Side Freedom Library.



Burns, Joe. Reviving the Strike: How Working People Can Regain Power and Transform

America. Ig Publishing, Brooklyn, New York. 2011

Rachleff, Peter. “Capital and Labor in the 21st Century: The End of History?” Against Labor:

How U.S. Employers Organized to Defeat Union Activism, Edited by Rosemary Fuerer and Chad Pearson, University of Illinois Press, 2017, pp 236-247.

Scheiber, Noam, Kenneth P. Vogel. “Behind a Key Anti-Labor Case, a Web of Conservative

Donors.” New York Times. February 25, 2018. //www.nytimes.com/2018/02/25/business/economy/labor-court-conservatives.html.

Yates, Michael D. Why Unions Matter. Monthly Review Press, New York. 1998.





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