Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia’s death in February, along with a box of documents found in a Colorado meth house five years ago, made for a bad week for proponents of the so-called right-to-work laws meant to break the labor movement’s back.
On Tuesday, the Supreme Court issued a split 4-4 ruling in Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association that, by default, affirms a lower court ruling that public-sector unions have the right to collect dues from all employees they represent. Were Justice Scalia alive and well, that right would surely have died.
In America’s 26 right-to-work states, unions, once able to collect dues from all workers for whom they negotiate, collect dues only from members who agree to pay them—meaning there’s no price at all to enjoying the benefits of a union contract. Freeloaders, hop on! Benefits become giveaways arranged by an Oprah-like union—You get affordable health insurance! And you get yearly raises! And you get holiday bonuses!—all available without contributing a penny to the organization responsible for negotiating to win them and fighting to protect them.
The Supreme Court’s split ruling must have been a disappointment to the folks at the National Right to Work Committee, a nonprofit that has diligently chipped away at unions across the country. The committee’s legal arm—with its mission “to eliminate coercive union power and compulsory unionism abuses through strategic litigation, public information, and education programs”—had filed an amicus brief in Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association.
While the legal branch of the committee reportedly counts the Walton Family Foundation and the Coors’ Castle Rock Foundation among its donors, the National Right to Work Committee is a “social welfare” nonprofit and, as such, isn’t required to disclose its donors. Under this classification, the committee is forbidden from engaging in “direct or indirect” political campaigns.
Yet, on Monday, a jury in Helena heard the opening arguments in a case against Montana state Sen. Art Wittich, who stands accused of accepting thousands of dollars worth of campaign support from the committee. The case against Wittich, and the detailed glimpse into the committee’s operations, is all thanks to a box of documents first discovered in a Colorado meth house in 2011.
The box was eventually sent to Montana’s commissioner of political practices. In it were records showing the National Right to Work Committee had provided tens of thousands of dollars worth of support to anti-union candidates for Montana’s state senate. The documents, and emails unearthed since the boxes were discovered, show that the committee’s operatives provided websites, voter databases, fliers, surveys, and more to Wittich and other anti-union candidates. The committee launched similar initiatives in Iowa and Indiana.
Last year, Wittich introduced a bill to make Montana a right-to-work state. It drew no support.
I first heard about the committee while working as an undercover union organizer, waiting tables at a South Florida casino. The committee’s legal arm was representing a groundskeeper at Mardi Gras Casino, another South Florida casino, in a case aimed at hindering any union’s attempt to organize at Mardi Gras. Much like Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association, the case went all the way to the Supreme Court and, once again, unions narrowly escaped a blow.
While working in the casino, I also witnessed the insidious nature of right-to-work laws.
Many of my coworkers knew very little, if anything, about organized labor. “Are we already in a union?” a buffet server asked. “Do the managers organize the union?” a cocktail waitress wondered.
That people who had spent decades working as bartenders, waiters, and cooks knew so little about unions wasn’t shocking—this was Florida after all, a state notoriously unwelcoming to organized labor. What was disturbing, though, was the advice given to me by a waitress who knew something about everything. I’ll call her Tricia.
In her 40s, Tricia had four school-aged daughters and enjoyed looking after younger employees like me. When word of a union campaign started to spread, Tricia was quick to counsel.
“Listen, the union is a good thing,” she half-whispered as we stood in the servers’ station. “But don’t sign up.” I looked at her, head cocked, unsure of what she was getting at. “You don’t have to pay dues. We’ll still get it all.”
She smiled, pleased with her gamesmanship. Though we hadn’t had an election yet, and were months, even years, away from securing a union contract, Tricia was planning.
Organized labor portrays right-to-work laws as a legally protected right to freeload. Advocates of those laws say compulsory dues impede the free speech rights of individual employees since unions are inherently political.
The one undeniable truth both sides agree on: Right-to-work laws cripple unions. They limit their budgets and forces them to expend resources on perennially organizing workers in shops that have already voted to unionize.
Of late, right-to-work proponents have been particularly successful. Four states have gone right to work in the past four years. Since Wisconsin passed a prohibition on compulsory dues for public sector unions in 2011 (as well as a litany of additional restrictions on unionized labor) the state’s public sector union membership has plummeted by nearly 40 percent and after autoworkers negotiated contracts under Michigan’s new right-to-work laws in 2014, the unions lost 48,000 members. In this sense, it’s difficult to reconcile right-to-work’s supposed intent—liberty and free speech—with the reality of its corrosive effect on organized labor, the formidable ally to Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders, and progressives everywhere.
Which made my exchange with Tricia all the more troubling. Tricia had clearly stated how she felt about the union—“the union is a good thing”—yet she had no intention of signing a card. In that moment, I witnessed the brilliance of right-to-work laws. Beneath a scrim of liberty and freedom, lawmakers can inject a sedative into the labor movement’s central nervous system. My dialogue with Tricia should have been a lively one about raises, health insurance, and consistent scheduling. Instead, it went limp.
“That doesn’t seem right,” was the only response I could muster before we went back to work.
While Tricia’s advice went against everything I’d ever learned about accountability and citizenship, I couldn’t blame her. She was playing by the rules, and, as a waitress working for tips, she literally couldn’t afford to think about the health of the labor movement. Why spend $30 on dues when she didn’t have to? That money could be used on gas or groceries or a new softball glove for her daughter.
A few months after our conversation, Tricia quit. She wasn’t making enough money at the casino. Our coworkers would eventually unionize but by that time I’d left for a new job at a Mardi Gras Casino, intent on unionizing it from the inside.