By Tom Chamberlain, Oregon AFL-CIO president
Lame duck, like the Senate filibuster, has moved from an alien term to the center of political conversations. A lame duck session is the time between an election and when new members of Congress, state, or local governments, are sworn into office. A lame duck session, though short in duration, is time when out-going electeds who chose not to run or were defeated are freed from the accountability of constituents.
A lame duck session is what allowed the Michigan Legislature to pass so-called “right-to-work” legislation. Such legislation allows workers who are represented by a union not to pay union dues. Think about it, workers get all the benefits of union representation — wages, fringe benefits, political power, and a voice in the work place. In fact, if these workers get in trouble at work the union is required to represent them. But they can choose to not pay dues.
Imagine if Oregonians could elect not to pay taxes, but were still allowed to send their children to public schools, drive on Oregon roads, use the library, and receive unemployment insurance, workers’ compensation benefits, and a host of other services. As more and more Oregonians elected not to pay their taxes, services would erode to the point of collapse. That is exactly the corporate strategy of right to work: to bankrupt America’s unions.
Twenty-four states have passed right-to-work laws. In 1957, Indiana passed such a law, and eight years later repealed it. This year we saw right-to-work once again pass in Indiana.
The negative impact of a right-to-work (RTW) law on workers is well documented:
- Wages in RTW states are 3.2 percent lower. Using the average wage in non-RTW states as the base ($22.11), the average full-time, full-year worker in a RTW state makes about $1,500 less annually than a similar worker in a non-RTW state.
- The rate of employer-funded health insurance is 2.6 percent lower in RTW states compared with non-RTW states. If workers in non-RTW states were to receive health insurance at work at this lower rate, 2 million workers nationally would not have health insurance.
- The rate of employer-sponsored pensions is 4.8 percent lower in RTW states when you compare similar workplaces. If workers in non-RTW states were to receive pensions at this lower rate, 3.8 million fewer workers nationally would have pensions.
De-funding unions removes the major power base in state after right-to-work state that could stand up for workers and progressive interests. After a right-to-work law is implemented, right-wing conservatives and corporate CEOs have free rein to implement a corporate agenda at the expense of the middle class and poor. That’s why we see profit-motivated experiments like private-for-profit prisons in right-to-work states such as Texas and Arizona.
We’re no longer just seeing this in traditionally conservative states. In Michigan, 26 percent of workers belong to a union (compared to 17.3 percent in Oregon). It is one of the most unionized states in the country. If Michigan can become a right-to-work state, every state is in jeopardy. Our nation is in jeopardy.
As a movement, unions and union members must forget about old wrongs and grudges that separate us. Competition for members that pit one union against another burn up resources, and more often than not, deny a confused workforce any union representation at all. As a movement, we need to understand that until private and public unions, AFL-CIO and independent unions, come together as one force, one voice, we will continue to be engaged in a defensive battle that results in more Michigans.
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