Kitchen Table Economics: What is "Right to Work?"

The right to join a union and to negotiate for a living wage and decent working conditions should be available to all workers. Republican politicians are trying to take this basic right away in several states by proposing legislation misleadingly named “right to work.”

Right to work (RTW) laws do not guarantee anyone a job; that is, there is no actual right to work. Rather, RTW laws make it illegal for unions to require that each worker who benefits from a union contract pay his or her fair share of the costs of administering that contract.

“Right to work” is a propaganda slogan that the corporate- owned media has successfully branded and repeated. We should avoid echoing the phrase. Instead, we should call these laws what they are – an assault on unions. According to the Economic Policy Institute, in states that have adopted RTW legislation, annual wages and benefits are about $1,500 lower than for comparable workers in non-RTW states, for both union and nonunion workers. And the odds of getting health insurance or a pension through one’s job are also lower.

The way to economic recovery isn’t to lay off workers, slash their salaries and benefits, and threaten the retirement plans of people who have been paying into them for over 30 years. But that is what politicians in Wisconsin, Indiana, New Hampshire and other states are doing as they pass RTW legislation. And by making it harder for workers’ organizations to have staff and to sustain themselves financially, RTW laws undermine unions’ bargaining strength and workers’ participation in politics.

Twenty-two states – predominantly in the South – already have RTW laws, mostly dating from the Joe McCarthy era. Since the Republican sweep of state legislatures in 2010,

a coalition of corporate lobbyists, right-wing anti-worker politicians and extremists including Grover Norquist and the Koch Brothers have sponsored RTW legislation and similar attacks on unions in dozens of states. When they can’t win completely they often introduce other “paycheck deception bills” to limit unions’ participation in elections and politics.

By Duane E. Campbell

The great US “middle class” (read: affluent working class) did not just happen. It was built by the hard work of our parents and grandparents and the unions that represented them. Union power created the 40-hour work week, paid vacations, and wages that were once the envy of the world. But today workers and unions are under siege. In several states working people today are fighting the greatest class war in over 100 years. And we can expect little help from a political system that has aided the looting of the country. As democratic socialists we should lend our support to unions and working people in general in defeating these anti-worker RTW proposals.

Duane Campbell is a professor (emeritus) of bilingual multicultural education at California State University Sacramento, a union activist for over 40 years, and the chair of Sacramento DSA. His most recent book is Choosing Democracy: a Practical Guide to Multicultural Education (2010). He blogs on politics, education and labor at and www. t 

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