Right to Work at The Times

The New York Times invited comments on Gary Chaison’s letter about the new push for right-to-work laws. It published comments today, January 22, 2012.

My comment is that the revival is both different and similar from past anti-union campaigns. First, the political meaning of the campaign today is different. Compared to a generation ago when there was widespread union membership in the industrial belt and southern politicians sought to protect a competitive edge by keeping labor cheap – all of the former Confederate states and only these states adopted right-to-work laws – today the labor market is national and the rate of union membership in the private sector is back to where it was before the New Deal. The anti-union campaign today is clearly an attempt to change the subject from the financial industry that pushed our economy into crisis and from the “job creators” who are not creating jobs to a union scapegoat.

Second, Chaison comments about the history of right-to-work that “it is not clear whether” right-to-work laws undermined unionism or whether lack of unionism led to right-to-work laws. This is a question that can be answered. At the time of the New Deal, each southern state was dominated by an oligarchy of businessmen and Democratic politicians who operated an economy of labor exploitation. The question is How did workers react to the New Deal’s federal protection for their right to form unions expressed in the National Labor Relations Act? In Texas, for example, about 350,000 workers had joined unions by 1953, posing a dramatic challenge to the old ways of doing business in the state. But the oligarchs fought back, using their control of state government and the Democratic Party to sponsor a half-dozen anti-union laws (of which right-to-work was simply one) and to enforce discriminatory hiring. Everyone in this debate understands that right-to-work undermines existing unions because it protects free riders, but what about organizing in the first place? Historically, in the context of an anti-union political campaign, the Texas union movement was defeated because the anti-union laws substantially raised the cost of organizing – largely through expensive litigation – and because state Democratic leaders, such as Governor Allan Shivers, launched a counter-movement of massive resistance to school integration, which undermined labor unity.

Today’s anti-union campaign has been met effectively in Ohio and prospectively in Wisconsin, if the million signatures on recall petitions is a guide, by broad-based organization. In Indiana, the first push was blocked, but a new push looks likely to prevail because the Republicans have the votes in the legislature.But there and in other states like Michigan where the Republican Party is scape-goating unions, both public and private, an effective response is for unions to ally with the broader discontent over the economy and keep the focus on the financial and other corporate groups that are responsible for our economic plight. The resurrection of race-baiting in the South Carolina Republican Party primary is the bitter aftertaste of the old southern anti-union campaign tactics, which today’s economic justice campaigners must meet head-on.