It took 73 years for the first 26 states to adopt anti-union “right-to-work” laws, and just 37 days of the Trump administration for numbers 27 and 28 to come on board.
“What’s happened is that the alt-right rats have taken control of the ship; they’re in charge now,” said Raymond Hogler, who teaches labor and employment relations at Colorado State University.
Kentucky, the last right-to-work holdout in the South, wasted no time, passing its bill on Jan. 7, in the first week of the legislative session after Republicans took control of the state government for the first time in nearly 100 years. Republican Gov. Matt Bevin promptly signed the bill into law.
Missouri passed its legislation on Feb. 6, thanks to new Republican Gov. Eric Greitens. Though Missouri’s Legislature has been controlled by Republicans for years, several versions of right-to-work legislation were vetoed by former Democratic Gov. Jay Nixon.
Both states now will allow dissenting workers to avoid paying “fair-share” fees even as they reap union-negotiated benefits.
Hogler said the nation is at a tipping point. “Just a few more right-to-work states and it’s going to be very difficult for non-right-to-work states to remain that way,” he said.
The lower union membership rates in right-to-work states combined with less union funding means diminished union power and rising inequality — eroding job earnings and benefits in those states.
“Somebody is getting that money. It just isn’t workers anymore,” says Hogler.
This assault on organized labor was predicted after Trump’s victory, a victory ironically championed by his white working-class base.
“Over the years, these very workers benefited from what unions accomplished,” said Georgetown University Professor Joseph A. McCartin, the director of the Kalmanovitz Initiative for Labor and the Working Poor. “And union workers helped to raise the pay and improve the benefits enjoyed by nonunion workers.”
Federal law currently allows states to determine if they want to permit fair-share — or agency-fee — arrangements between unions and employers. Republicans are picking off states one by one, but also are taking aim at fair-share fees in national legislation and in the courts.
In February, Republican Reps. Joe Wilson of South Carolina and Steve King of Iowa introduced legislation that would eliminate fair-share fees nationwide.
“The losses in Kentucky and Missouri hurt,” said McCartin. “In many ways, the effort to pass a national law is more of a diversionary tactic, intended to keep unionists from strong union states focused on national-level developments rather than those in the states, where the real damage is being done.”
And a new anti-union case challenging fair-share fees on the same legal grounds as the Friedrichs case, which ended in a 4-4 ruling in 2016, is likely to come before a U.S. Supreme Court with a new conservative majority next year.
In 2016, according to the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics, only 10.7 percent of workers nationwide were in unions, the lowest level on record. A dramatic expansion of right-to-work states, where membership is lowest, Hogler says, would “permanently empty the pockets of labor unions, eroding them of virtually all their collective solidarity.”
What are unions to do?
Public-sector unions that use collective bargaining to defend their communities as well as their members and to challenge “policies that have allowed Wall Street and corporate privatizers to gain increasing control over our public institutions” will be in a stronger position to survive, McCartin says.
When fair-share fees are banned, workers play a dangerous game when they opt out of paying. Each individual’s decision not to contribute chips away at the union’s strength, hurting all workers.
If we allowed citizens to opt out of taxes, says Hogler by way of analogy, “the government craters, it can’t sustain itself. We all pay for things we deem to be in the public interest and are good for us, so why should unions be an exception?”