Right to Work Laws and Why Labor Unions Are in Crisis

Scott Martelle on organized labor’s slide and its failure to make the case that it’s still needed.

Bill Pugliano/Getty Images

In the midst of the Michigan legislature’s move this week to gut organized labor’s power in the heart of modern American industrial unionism, an interesting discussion played out on my Facebook page. Most of the posts were by friends aghast at what the legislature was doing. But one, from a Michigan-based journalist and daughter of a former United Auto Workers member, stood out.

She was in favor of unions, she said, “but I'm not in favor of a closed shop.” Then she asked as a form of argument: “Why should I have to pay dues if I don't support a union? … It's a really tough economy. I can use that money for other things.”

That a journalist based in Michigan doesn’t know the answer to that question proves that, among the many problems unions face, they have lost the communications battle.

Over the past couple of generations, union strength in America has slid from significant to near-irrelevance. The reasons are myriad. The shift in the economic base from a heavily unionized industrial sector to a lightly unionized service sector. Post-Reagan federal labor policies that mean the decision to strike often is a decision to get replaced. Corporate decisions, aided by national policy, shifting work to overseas factories that offer a fraction of domestic labor costs.

But the more pervasive problem is labor’s image, and a related erosion of public support, a tectonic shift from two generations ago that has left the best—if flawed—agent for the interests of working-class America struggling for its very existence. And at a time, it should be noted, when working Americans desperately need an agent fighting on their behalf.

This hasn’t happened overnight. Right-to-work laws have been around for decades, and in Michigan the slope began slipping within individual contract negotiations. As a member of the Newspaper Guild, I was part of a nasty Detroit newspaper strike and lockout that began with an expired closed-shop contract in 1995 and ended nearly six years later with an open-shop contract, which meant paying union dues was an option, not a requirement. That part of the agreement is now, essentially, the state law in Michigan, and in 23 other states that previously enacted right-to-work laws. And the number of those states could increase.

The argument for right-to-work laws is the self-defeating proposition that if a state doesn’t undercut unions, it will lose jobs to those states that already have such laws. Following a similar logic, states and local governments have handed out billions in tax breaks to employers looking to expand or open new factories, out of fear that if they don’t give away public money, another government will, and thus win the jobs. It’s a corrosive practice and, from a national perspective, counterproductive to economic development, as a recent New York Times investigative series laid out.

In both cases, the only winners are the employers, and shareholders. Workers lose wages. Local governments lose tax revenue. Communities lose stability. A federal approach barring such state-to-state and city-to-city competition could end both destructive practices, but that isn’t likely to happen.

Somewhere along the way, unions became the scapegoat in these fights. They drive up the cost of doing business, we hear, though unmentioned is that higher wages mean a stronger local economy. Unions are corrupt, we hear, though that’s a hard stone to cast for anyone living in a glass mansion built by the banking and investment industries, or with the ill-gotten gains from corporate insider trading. Even odder is to hear that argument from working-class people, who have bought into the notion that “right to work” actually has something to do with workplace freedom.

This is where the union movement has its biggest problem, not with the wealth of the Koch brothers and their stealth campaign to undermine unions, significant as that is. It’s in persuading working America that organized labor isn’t the stuff of history, that they do indeed need the mutual protection of collective bargaining, and that embracing “right to work” is against their best interests, not a blow for personal choice.

Ultimately, these are political decisions, and while organized labor has spent liberally for (primarily Democratic) political candidates, it has been less focused on building a grass-roots political base outside the union ranks. Part of the hurdle to building a broader political consensus is overcoming amnesia—organized labor fought for eight-hour workdays, health insurance coverage, and pensions—and something of a cultural predisposition to jealousy. We saw that in full display during the Wisconsin showdowns over Gov. Scott Walker’s effort to bar collective bargaining by public employees. Part of the argument was over public-employee pensions, which have become economic islands as the private sector has moved away from pensions (paid primarily by employers, with lifelong payouts) in favor of 401k plans (paid primarily by the employees, with a finite amount of available cash in retirement).

Many private-sector workers, eyeing their own reduced economic standing, had trouble empathizing with the plight of Wisconsin workers receiving better job benefits, especially those paid for with tax dollars. Unions failed to drive home the point that the answer shouldn’t be to drag down Wisconsin public-employee benefits to the new lows of the private sector, but to fight together to increase everyone else’s benefits.

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In the end, the collapse of private-sector unions reflects labor’s failure to build that crucial sense of solidarity among a broad section of working America. And part of that is the class divide. Unions—in particular the Detroit-based UAW—a major force in the expansion of the post-World War II middle class, propelling blue-collar workers’ wages into the range of white-collar workers.

It is the children, and grandchildren, of that generation who think they will do better on their own in the workplace than by banding together with co-workers to press for better wages and working conditions. That’s a crucial perception and organizing problem for unions—that those who need them most don’t see them as a solution to their problems.

And as membership has declined, public distrust of unions has shot up. According to Gallup polls, unions’ unfavorable rating rose from 29 percent in 2006 to 45 percent in 2009, before ebbing to 42 percent this year (all surveys were taken in August). The favorable rating for unions similarly slipped from 59 percent in 2006 to 48 percent in 2009, before rebounding slightly to 52 percent this year.

By comparison, in the 1950s, three out of four Americans had a favorable view of unions. Rebuilding some of that trust could be the foundation for rebuilding the movement—and recovering the kind of electoral clout that could make moves like those of the Michigan legislature harder to pull off.