The attack on public sector unions

It started in 2011 with the stroke of a pen by a newly-elected governor in Wisconsin. In signing Act 10, Gov. Scott Walker took away collective bargaining rights from the state’s public sector workers that had been in place since 1959. Act 10 restricts public sector unions to bargaining solely over base wages; eliminates their ability to negotiate healthcare, working hours, pensions and vacations; prohibits them from collecting union dues through paycheck deductions; and requires that they win recertification elections every 12 months.

Walker’s actions emboldened his fellow conservatives, and his anti-worker fever quickly spread to neighboring Michigan, Illinois, and Indiana, whose governors share the philosophy that public (and private!) sector bargaining ought to be banned or severely restricted. These governors, some with and some without the consent of their state legislatures, subsequently instituted “right to work” laws, eliminated dues check-off, and rolled back seniority rights.

In 2012, Gov. Rick Snyder of Michigan signed a right to work bill, eliminating the requirement that private and public sector workers contribute dues to the unions that represent them. Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner and Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels used Executive Orders to circumvent their respective state legislatures and strike blows against public sector labor unions. In Illinois, Rauner ended the obligation for those who opted out of the union to pay service fees. He would have gone farther toward his ultimate goal of making Illinois a right to work state had he not been stymied by the fact that it requires a change in state law, and Democrats control both houses of the state legislature.

Right to work is wrong for workers

Right to work is a gross misnomer that says workers who benefit from collective bargaining should not pay unions dues or service fees. “Right to work” has nothing to do with actual employment. A more apt name might be “right to work for less” because workers in states that have right to work laws earn, on average, $5,971 less per year than their counterparts in non-right to work states. Right to work states also have higher rates of poverty and workplace fatalities and lower rates of health insurance coverage. The real purpose of right to work legislation is to deny unions funding to conduct effective bargaining and political action, in order to marginalize unions and strip workers of their voice and the power they have through collective action. And that, in turn, affects all workers, not just those in unions.

Sordid origins

The National Right to Work Committee was the brainchild of Vance Muse, an oil industry lobbyist and avowed racist born in 1890. Muse spent his early years waging campaigns against women’s suffrage, child-labor laws and the eight-hour workday before launching a full-blown political campaign in 1955 to squelch the then-rising power of organized labor through right to work legislation. In 1959, Eleanor Roosevelt saw right to work for exactly what it is: “it does nothing for working people, but instead gives employers the right to exploit labor.”

The American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) now carries the right to work banner. ALEC, the policy and lobbying organization backed by billionaires Charles and David Koch, as well as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and many major corporations, carefully schools its members to promote right to work laws in terms of economic development and greater workplace “democracy.” Don’t be fooled. ALEC has only one motive in all that it does: to further enrich the 1 percent.

We won’t be silenced

On May 29, NYSNA members will gather for the Public Sector Conference (see details back cover). We’ll explore the many challenges faced by public sector healthcare workers, both in New York and across the country: the spreading erosion of collective bargaining rights, New York’s Taylor Law, outsourcing and privatization, elimination of retirement and pension benefits, and others. These are formidable challenges that demand our heightened attention and continued response. The answer to these challenges is the same today as it’s always been: workers win when we stand united. Benjamin Franklin advised the thirteen colonies to “hang together, or hang separately” — sound advice from the 18th Century for the 21st.

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