Know Your Rights
by Doug Bonney


In this piece, I want to continue with the employment law mythbusting theme, and I specifically want to talk about the mythical "right to work." The short answer is that "right to work" is a misnomer made up by anti-union employer shills to mislead working people into the false perception that unions somehow are preventing them from exercising their God-given right to work. In fact, nothing in the United States constitution or American law generally gives citizens a right to work. Certainly, corporate bosses aren't interested in guaranteeing working people jobs, which would be the only kind of "right to work" that would be meaningful.

This topic is particularly timely in Missouri because a so-called "Right to Work" proposal is currently pending in the Missouri House as House Bill 877. And, in the Missouri Senate, Bill 610 would restrict public employee unions from collecting and spending member money for political purposes.

First, I'll give you some history. When Congress enacted the National Labor Relations Act in 1935, it permitted employers and unions to include a so-called "union security" provision in their collective bargaining agreements. Such provisions could originally require union membership as a condition of working for a unionized employer.

As the National Labor Relations Board and the federal courts wrestled with these union security issues, however, it became clear that "membership" didn't mean that workers had to join and participate in unions against their will. In a long series of cases, the Supreme Court held that "membership" means only financial support for the union's basic core functions of collective bargaining and contract enforcement, which are things that benefit everyone in the unionized work place.

In 1947, the Republican Congress enacted the Taft-Hartley Amendments to the National Labor Relations Act. One of those amendments provided that states could enact laws prohibiting unions from enforcing union security agreements in those states. The federal labor law says nothing about any "right to work."

Since 1947, twenty-two states have adopted state constitutional provisions or other laws prohibiting unions from enforcing union security provisions. In practice, these so-called "right to work" laws simply mean that employees who work in a unionized workplace can lawfully refuse to pay their fair share of the costs unions incur in negotiating and enforcing collective bargaining agreements. In other words, it allows some employees to take the benefits of unionization"like higher wages and better health insurance"without having to pay for those perks. When Ronald Reagan campaigned for President, he claimed that people on welfare were freeloaders. Well, that is exactly what so-called "right to work" laws allow: Employees to free load on the gains they receive from working in a unionized workplace.

Contrary to the claims of anti-union groups, unionization does not require people to join unions as internal members, nor does unionization prevent non-members from getting and keeping jobs in unionized workplaces. In fact, a union that caused an employee to be fired or not hired because that employee was not an internal member would commit an unfair labor practice. So-called "right to work" laws do not add to those protections from discrimination. They simply let people reap the benefits of unionization without paying a fair share of the costs.

Moreover, contrary to anti-union groups, "right to work" laws do not guarantee or even help maintain jobs. North Carolina has a so-called "right to work" and is about the same size as Missouri. North Carolina's percentage of unionized workers is also considerably lower than the percentage of unionized workers in Missouri. Nonetheless, between January 2001 and November 2004, North Carolina lost nearly 170,000 manufacturing jobs while Missouri"which is not a so-called "right to work" state"lost only about 38,000 jobs during the same period of time. The fact that a state has fewer unionized workers and has a law allowing people to freeload on the backs of unions has no effect on maintaining manufacturing jobs.

But "right to work" laws do make it harder for unions to accomplish their objectives"including making sure good manufacturing jobs stay put and that unionized employees have fair wages and good employee benefits. Wages and benefits are worse in "right to work" states. For instance, Missouri's average annual wage is over $2000 more than the average wage in "right to work" states. And a significantly higher percentage of people have health insurance in Missouri than in "right to work" states.

The real idea behind "right to work" laws is to make employees less expensive for corporations in terms of wages and benefits. Right to work laws do that by starving unions of the dues paying members they need to keep employers fair and honest. "Right to work" laws have nothing to do with guaranteeing Americans a job and everything to do with the corporate bottom line. Starving workers make corporate cats fat.