What Does 'Right to Work' Really Mean?

Posted: Jan 02, 2013 2:41 PM

At this point in time, most people are probably familiar with the 'Right to Work' drama that ensued last week in Michigan. Through a debate with a staunch pro-union friend of mine, it dawned on me that perhaps there were some people who might not actually understand what it means to be pro 'Right to Work.'

At first glance, how could anyone be against a right to work? Who would be against someone working as the term itself invokes a pro-freedom sentiment found in the American democratic tradition. 'Right to Work' advocates believe these laws promote job creation, generate investment and allow workers to choose whether or not to join a union. 'Right to Work' opponents instead believe they are injurious to unions by reducing enrollment and dues, tends to decrease wages and overly favors employers.

Who's right? Studies show states like Michigan and others in the Midwest have some of the highest compulsory union enrollments yet also have high unemployment rates, compared to states with 'Right to Work' laws. On its face, this notion would seem counter intuitive as one might infer union membership implies protracted job security. These same studies also point out that non 'Right to Work' states pay their workers a little less but do provide more stability in the long run because they base their hiring decisions more so on demand, supply and the current economic conditions. So who's right?

Many justify their pro or con arguments based on the results of the laws as opposed to what is constitutionally just. To better understand what it means to be 'Right to Work' it is important to understand its actual constitutional heritage and the underlying free market principles that validate its position.

The US Constitution's first amendment guarantees the right of freedom of association and implies a freedom of non-association as well. The fifth amendment also guarantees private ownership of property and the principle of free enterprise. Understanding these rights, workers should therefore be able to join or not join unions and employers should have a substantial say in the way their business, or property, operates.

This notion changed substantially after the National Labor Relations Act, or Wagner Act, passed in congress and was signed into law by FDR in 1935. The new law purported to protect the rights of workers to organize labor unions, engage in collective bargaining - the ability to bargain on behalf of all union employees, striking as necessary to support their demands, and forced individuals to join a union whether they wanted to or not. In reality, the new law diminished fundamental private property rights for employers and their businesses and forced compulsory union membership and dues on employees.

The law was immediately controversial and unions steadily began to abuse their new powers throughout the country. Through intimidation, overreaching demands on management, compulsory membership and dues, and dispersing money to political candidates, whether or not the actual union membership endorsed them or not, became the new normal.

By 1947, one out of every fourteen workers were on strike. This eventually sparked the Labor-Management Relations Act, or Taft-Harley Act, which passed overwhelmingly in a bipartisan manner in congress in 1947, even overriding a presidential veto from President Truman. The act curtailed much of the abuses and redressed the labor-management imbalance. It also allowed, under section 14(b), the right-to-work clause giving workers the option not to join a union.

This also allowed employees the ability to decide on becoming union shops using a secret ballot - the same way we vote in any election in this country. This was incredibly important because unions could no longer intimidate others to join through social pressure or the threat of payback, which had taken place throughout much of the 1930s and 1940s. This sentiment was even captured in the Oscar winning Best Picture movie of 1954 - On the Waterfront, with Marlon Brando playing the famous lead role of Terry Malloy.

With all the hoopla this past week, 'Right to Work' opponents may not realize that they still have the right to organize if their employee base chooses to do so. 'Right to Work' advocates would agree with this as well but believe employees should have the fundamental right to choose whether or not to start or join a union without the fear of intimidation and by using a secret ballot. At the same time, non-union employees should not complain then of not receiving union benefits if they choose not to join their union.

As the country continues its economic drift, it's important we do not forget our constitutional freedoms and rights, even in this ever-changing globalized world with shifting economic landscapes and priorities. Both sides want a more prosperous and productive economy for all but it must begin with a right to work.

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