labor rights

Seeing Through 'Right-to-Work' Laws

WHAT’S NOT TO like about a law called “right to work”?

It is a label that invokes the best of our U.S. national persona: a dedication both to individual freedom and to the important role that our labors play in developing personal character and community prosperity. When Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker signed a so-called right-to-work law in early March, making his state the 25th in the country to adopt such legislation, he did so on a desk emblazoned with a bold sign saying “Freedom to Work.”

The problem with right-to-work laws is that they are a lie.

For generations, legislation drafted under this label has been promoted by people and organizations whose priorities are not to enhance the autonomy and welfare of our nation’s workers, but to crush them. Aimed at weakening collective bargaining rights, these laws trace their origins beyond the 1980s union attacks led by Ronald Reagan, past the 1940s Southern strategy to beat blacks out of the labor force, to a 19th century “Northern strategy” that equated “collective bargaining with the enslavement of free white men,” according to sociologist Cedric de Leon.

Right-to-work laws prohibit a company and its workers from agreeing that workers who benefit from a union-negotiated contract should pay fees to that union. The only “right” protected is the privilege of workers to benefit from union advocacy without paying for its cost. The goal is to drain the resources of those unions, smothering workers’ ability to collectively bargain for better wages and working conditions.

In addition to the pitch for “individual worker freedom,” right-to-work laws are sold as providing a boost to local economies. “We now have given one more big thing on that checklist to say that Wisconsin is open for business,” Walker said before signing the new law.

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