Friday, December 14, 2012

The "Right to Work" Myth

The “right to work” laws such as in Michigan are unfair, and hurt not just unions, but all workers. But I'm interested in the rhetoric here, and how this purely propagandistic term “right to work” is commonly used in every news story and even by its opponents. The effect is similar to what would happen if the nightly news routinely referred to attacks on abortion rights as “right to save babies” laws. Who could oppose the “right to work”?

The “right to work” laws have nothing to do with the right to work, because the union doesn't infringes on anyone's right to work. What we're talking about is the right to freeload by not paying union fees, not the right to work.

Under normal law, if you don't want to join a union, you still have to pay, in essence, a tax on your wages for the work that the union does on your behalf. If you don't like the union, you're perfectly free to oppose the union. You're free to urge your co-workers to elect different leaders, or affiliate with a different union, or abolish any union representation altogether. But it should be the collective choice of all the workers. It simply can't work if anyone is free to freeload.

The analogy here is to paying taxes to the IRS. If you don't like Congress, you're perfectly free to urge people to elect different leaders. But no sane person imagines that you have a “right to work” that includes the right not to have a portion of your wages in taxes. So why is your “right to work” violated if a small part of your income is taken away by a democratically-elected body that promotes the common good through a union?

The Republicans pushing for “right to work” don't actually believe in a right to work (after all, it's not written anywhere in the US Constitution). They want to destroy a political enemy by cutting off their funds. The right to unionize—and the right not to be punished for it by being forced to subsidize your slacker colleagues in “right to work” states—is what's truly at stake here. The “right to work” laws violate that fundamental right of association under the First Amendment by burdening pro-union workers with a greater financial burden that anti-union workers don't need to pay. In essence, “right to work” is a tax on people who want to join unions, and Republicans hope to kill unions by forcing their supporters to overcome that barrier to free association.

If you hate unions, then by all means critique them, attack them, and rationally persuade workers to get rid of them. But don't use the power of government to force an uneven playing field as a cynical political ploy.