With “friends” like Bruce Starr, who needs enemies?
That’s what construction union officials are saying after listening to Starr, a Republican candidate for Oregon labor commissioner, tell a conservative radio talk show that he would endeavor to make Oregon a “right-to-work” state.
Just two weeks prior, at a candidates’ forum in Bend sponsored by the Oregon State Building and Construction Trades Council, the five-term state senator from Hillsboro told the all-union audience: “We’ve had a good relationship over the last 10 years. We are friends. I’m not walking into enemy territory here today.”
“Right-to-work” is code for union-busting and working for less wages and benefits. According to data from the U.S. Department of Labor and the U.S. Census Bureau, workers in states with right-to-work laws earn on average $5,538 a year less than workers in states without such laws.
“You can’t be for right-to-work and be pro-labor,” said John Mohlis, executive director of the Building Trades Council. “Supporting right-to-work means you are anti-union.”
Gordon Lafer, an associate professor at the Labor Education and Research Center at the University of Oregon, wrote in The Nation that “right-to-work does not guarantee anyone a job. Rather, it makes it illegal for unions to require that each employee who benefits from the terms of a contract pay his or her share of the costs of administering it. By making it harder for workers’ organizations to sustain themselves financially, right-to-work aims to undermine unions’ bargaining strength and eventually render them extinct.”
“This is exactly what proponents of right-to-work laws want,” says the National Workrights Institute. “The champions of right-to-work laws are not supporters of workers’ rights.”
Right-to-work laws exist in 23 states.
Advocates of right-to-work claim that such laws protect workers’ right to freedom of association by preventing them from being forced to join unions against their will. But that’s not true. Workers already have that right under the National Labor Relations Act. Section 7 of the Act prohibits discrimination against any employee because they have chosen to join or not join a union.
That was the angle conservative talk show host Lars Larson used when interviewing Starr, who is trying to unseat Brad Avakian, a Democrat, as labor commissioner. Asked if he would openly advocate for Oregon to become a right-to-work state, Starr responded: “Yes. The pure answer and clear answer is ‘yes,’ Lars, I would. I’m pro-choice in that regard. Let’s let folks choose who they want to associate with, and again, I think a policy like that would create a lot more economic opportunity in our state and a lot more jobs, make Oregon a much more attractive place to do business.”
According to New York Times editorial page editor Andrew Rosenthal, economists have found that unionization has a minimal impact on growth and employment. “Six of the 10 states with the highest unemployment have right-to-work laws in place,” Rosenthal wrote. “North Carolina, which has the lowest unionization rate in the country, 1.8 percent, also has the sixth highest unemployment, 10 percent.”
Union density in Oregon is 17.1 percent of the workforce.
Mohlis told the Labor Press he was surprised by Starr’s comments. “It’s not in sync with what I thought his views were,” he said. “It shows more urgency to re-elect Avakian. It’s certainly not in our best interest to have a labor commissioner who is anti-labor.”
(Editor’s Note: Right-to-work statutes came into effect in 1947 with the passage of the Taft-Hartley Act by a Republican-controlled Congress. The Act allowed states the ability to pass laws that outlawed closed union shops. Previously, under the 1935 National Labor Relations Act, unions could enter into closed shop contacts in which employees at these workplaces had to become union members to get hired.)