- Paul Constant is a writer at Civic Ventures and cohost of the “Pitchfork Economics” podcast.
- He recently spoke with Shane Larson of Communications Workers of America about ‘right to work’ laws.
- Larson says these laws leave workers with lower pay and less employer-provided health insurance.
- See more stories on Insider’s business page.
In politics, sometimes naming is everything. If the widely accepted name for a policy or position has a strong emotional connotation, it can leave supporters with an uphill battle to persuade voters before they’ve even opened their mouths. One framing that has plagued progressives for decades, for instance, is “gun control.” Nobody wants to be controlled, so audiences are already subconsciously primed to be opposed to any proposal so-called “gun control” advocates put forth, which is why advocates have long preferred “gun safety” or “gun responsibility” to describe their position.
So let’s give credit where it’s due: Whichever nameless business lobby operative came up with the name “right-to-work laws” deserves a raise. Just on the basis of the name alone, “right-to-work” (hereafter RTW) sounds like a robust worker protection law, when in reality it’s the exact opposite – a way to give employers more power and money at the expense of workers.
The reality of ‘right to work’
RTW laws basically interfere with the ability of unions to collect dues from workers who enjoy union protections. Trickle-down politicians in the 28 states that have passed RTW bill these laws as a way to save workers money, but really they starve unions of funds, power, and bargaining capability – the unions who have successfully gotten the workers better pay, adequate breaks, and safe hours.
That’s bad news for workers. A large body of evidence proves that as unions continue to lose power, economic inequality grows: CEOs and shareholders take home more profits while worker paychecks shrink. Studies show that worker wages are 3.1% smaller in states with RTW laws, and despite the fact that trickle-downers promise that they will inspire employers to create jobs, there’s no evidence that RTW laws spur employment growth.
In Friday’s episode of the “Pitchfork Economics podcast,” Shane Larson, the legislative and political director of Communications Workers of America, argues that RTW laws should be called “right-to-work-for-less” or “right-to-mooch” laws.
Larson says RTW “was concocted by a bunch of Southern segregationist white supremacists as an effort to try to stop unions” in the 1930s and 1940s as “a way to keep workplaces from being integrated.” The policy push “was bankrolled by corporations to really whip up this racist hysteria into campaigns to pass these ‘right-to-work’ laws in states all throughout the south.”
(And if you think Larson’s language is inflammatory, you should know that the leading advocate for RTW laws in response to President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal, a Texan corporate lobbyist named Vance Muse, was described by his own grandson as “a white supremacist, an anti-Semite, and a Communist-baiter, a man who beat on labor unions not on behalf of working people, as he said, but because he was paid to do so.”)
Workers in RTW states earn less
In the years since the Civil Rights movement, corporations have scrubbed the overt white supremacy from their RTW campaigns, but they’ve continued to advocate for the law with all their estimable power.
“If you are a worker in a ‘right-to-work’ state,” Larson explained, “not only do you make about $US1,600 ($AU2,203) less a year than [workers in non-RTW states], you have less employer-provided health insurance, and significantly lower retirement plans or pension plans. It’s a pure, clear benefit for corporations” at the expense of workers, he said.
The House of Representatives passed a bill this spring that could change all that. The Protecting the Right to Organize Act, or PRO Act, strengthens the rights of American workers to unionize without employer interference and reverses RTW legislation that defunds unions. The bill is now gridlocked in the Senate, so passage would either require the unlikely support of 10 Republican Senators, or filibuster reform allowing the Democratic majority to pass the bill without Republican support.
The PRO Act is wildly popular, with nearly 60% of likely voters, including an impressive 40% of Republicans, supporting the bill. This is the kind of broadly popular economic legislation that Democrats need to pass if they want to hold on to Congress in the 2022 elections. It puts money in workers’ pockets, it improves peoples’ lives – and it’s got a pretty good name, too.