Labor spotlight

‘Right to Work’ is anything but that

Which is why stakes are so high in Friedrichs battle

‘Right to Work’ is anything but that - worstworkers1.jpg

The simple fact that the nation’s top court agreed to hear Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association speaks to its importance. If the case hadn’t had wide-ranging implications, the Supreme Court wouldn’t have gotten involved. A victory for Friedrichs would effectively turn every state into a “right-to-work’’ state for public employees, including teachers. And that wouldn’t be good for workers.

“The Friedrichs case is a dagger that points at the heart of the trade union movement,” says Nelson Lichtenstein, the director of the Center for the Study of Work, Labor and Democracy at the University of California, Santa Barbara.

The term “right to work” is a misnomer: It doesn’t guarantee any rights or provide any work. Right to work guarantees the “right” not to pay agency fees. Right-to-work laws weaken labor unions and cripple their ability to fight for better wages, benefits and working conditions, according to an Economic Policy Institute report. Studies show the state passage of right-to-work legislation results in a workforce with lower wages and fewer rights and benefits.

Here in New York and 23 other states, federal law permits private employers and the union to agree to an arrangement in which the workers in the bargaining unit are required to pay their union what are known as agency fees. These fees cover the costs of collective bargaining but not political activities, even if these workers opt not to join the union. States like New York also allow government employers and public sector unions to enter into such arrangements.

In the nation’s 26 right-to-work states, says William A. Herbert, a labor expert from Hunter College, “a union is still required under the law to be the sole exclusive representative for the entire bargaining unit including nonunion members.” First passed in the late 1940s, right-to-work laws were long confined to the South and West, but Republican lawmakers have now passed right-to-work laws in the Midwest, once a bastion of labor power. West Virginia, Indiana, Michigan and Wisconsin have all recently become right-to-work states.

Since workers can reap union benefits without joining the union or paying their fair share, union membership rates are significantly lower in right-to-work states. In fact, right-to-work states accounted for 18 of the 21 states in which less than 10 percent of the workforce was unionized, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Fewer union members combined with less union funding means diminished union power — and soon eroding wages and benefits. In right-to-work states, the average household income is lower, according to the Economic Policy Institute. While these laws drive down wages for all workers, the wage penalty is even higher for women and workers of color, the institute says.

Jeffrey Keefe of Rutgers University found the wage and compensation gaps between public- and private-sector workers are significantly higher in right-to-work states.

The average minimum wage is also lower and poverty rates are higher in right-to-work states, according to the Center for Economic and Policy Research.

Right to work does not improve the employment rate either, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Seven of the 11 states with the highest unemployment rates have right-to-work laws.

People in right-to-work states are more likely to be uninsured and are less likely to have job-based health insurance, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation. Bureau of Labor Statistics data show right-to-work workplaces are more dangerous; their rate of deaths on the job is higher.

The presence of strong unions also bolsters public education. Average annual education spending per pupil is lower in right-to-work states. Thirteen of the 15 states that spend the least per student are right to work, according to federal data compiled by the National Center for Education Statistics. Students are less likely to be at grade level in math and reading, and residents are less likely to have high school and college degrees in right-to-work states, according to Corporation for Enterprise Development data.

Indeed unions have a positive “spillover’’ effect on communities. “Unionism is highly correlated with the well-being of all children in an area,’’ according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

The fates of the middle class and unions are intertwined. The nation’s greatest prosperity coincided with its greatest levels of union membership, notes Colin Gordon, a University of Iowa professor of history and public policy. As union membership has fallen, income inequality has worsened.

We’re seeing the “undoing of those institutions that sustain middle-class incomes,” Gordon said. “You start to lose wage-setting mechanisms like collective bargaining … and that tends to suck the middle out of the economy.”

The Friedrichs battle is about much more than “fair share’’ fees.

“The Friedrichs case is the latest chapter in the right’s much longer war against organized labor and workers’ rights,” says Eric Arnesen, a professor of American labor history at George Washington University. “The stakes in this particular battle could not be higher; if the anti-union forces prevail, the negative consequences for labor will be considerable.”

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