By: Mary von Euler
What’s with the industrial heartland of the old Northwest? Governors Scott Walker and Bruce Rauner are taking their stand as stalwart defenders of freeloaders, joining Michigan and Indiana as “Right to Work” states. Let’s review some history, which goes a long way to explain why the income of working people has stagnated over the past 40 years, while the 1% have prospered.
The National Labor Relations Act of 1935 (the Wagner Act) established the right of workers to form unions and bargain with their employers. Under some collective bargaining agreements, as part of the deal, non-union workers could be required to join a union that represented a majority of workers in a bargaining unit, since all workers benefit from bargaining agreements. When unions bargain for higher wages, all workers collect higher wages, not just dues-paying members. When unions bargain for sick leave, all workers get sick leave, not just dues-paying members. When non-union workers file grievances, the union doesn’t just represent its members, it represents all workers. Working people, including most Americans, thought it was fair.
During World War II, wages – along with prices -- were frozen. So when peace came, some unions struck for long overdue wage increases. Employers hate strikes, which also tend to be unpopular with people who are inconvenienced. Republicans capitalized on the anger to gain control of Congress, which then passed the Taft-Hartley Act over President Truman’s veto. That law opened the door to states – mostly in the traditionally anti-union South -- to pass laws that no one could be required to join a union, even as part of a collectively bargained contract .
Under so-called “right to work” laws, when a union is supported by a majority of workers, no agreement can require all workers to join the union as a condition of employment. As a result, unions can bargain for higher pay, sick leave, or other benefits; all workers get higher pay, sick leave, and other benefits, including non-union members, not just dues-paying members. No one wants to be a sucker: why pay dues when you get the benefits without paying dues? The desired result was that gradually unions were weakened when the next generation of workers forgot how important unions are. Why pay dues, when the law says you can get all the benefits for free? But in fact, the freebies aren’t entirely free because weak unions have little leverage with employers. The Republican strategy has handed economic and political power to the 1%.
Most workers don’t want to be suckers, but they don’t want to be freeloaders either. To some of us it seems a matter of logic and decency that those who benefit should pay dues to the union that brought them those benefits. How did we ever let the Republicans get away with calling anti-union laws “right to work” laws. They’re Freeloader Freebie laws, but Republicans like Walker and Rauner try to make workers feel like suckers if they pay union dues when they can get union-won benefits without paying a dime.
When I was in college in 1948, the Republicans put anti-labor referenda on the ballot in Massachusetts. Student ADA chapters (SDA) on several college campuses worked with Massachusetts ADA and labor unions to knocked on doors and defeated the referenda. Surely if the working people in Wisconsin and Illinois hear the facts, they won’t want their states to pass a Freeloaders’ Freebie law.