Magazine Article

“Right to Work” is wrong for faculty

They are called “Right to Work” laws, but they are really about “Work for Less.” Court decisions and legislative action in this vein take away the ability of people who work to band together and assert some power over our own working lives.

By Dorothy D. Wills
Chair, CFA Membership & Organizing Committee
Geography and Anthropology, Cal Poly Pomona


Ogg was putting the finishing touches on the aurochs on the cave wall. He carefully pressed his open hand flat beneath it and spit the ochre and ash paste in his mouth onto the blank spaces between and all around his fingers. When he lifted his hand, there was a perfect outline.

Baa quietly rose from behind him, bringing the torch up close to dry the paint.

“You are the best, Ogg,” he said reverently. “It is an honor to be your apprentice.”

“Thank you, Baa. You know the ritual leader is telling the people we are getting too many mammoth steaks in exchange for our art? He says the young guys from Neander Cave want to do the sacred art for less,” said Ogg.

Baa shook his head. “We artists are all hunter-gatherers, too. Breaking the community will ruin the ritual. It’s wrong to work that way.”

The giant corporations and billionaires who have paid for the extreme conservative takeover of our politics and economy have been smart in their use of language. ‘Right to work’ refers to the legislation passed in 28 states that makes it difficult or impos-sible for unions to recruit members in the workplace.  

Of course, no one is deprived of the right to work in the absence of such laws. The premise is that unions force people to join them (a false claim—this is already illegal under federal law since 1947). ‘Right to work’ laws prohibit security agreements between unions and employers that govern the extent to which an established union can require employees’ membership, payment of union dues, or fees as a condition of employment, either before or after hiring.

A few states ban collective bargaining entirely, and/or organizing at work. It is disingenuous, to say the least, to call any of this a right to work. What happens to the right to freedom of association and contract under these laws?

Kahlenberg and Marvit argue that the phrase ‘right-to-work’ is a misnomer because the law simply “gives employees the right to be free riders—to benefit from collective bargaining without paying for it.” President Obama called such laws “right to work for less.”

Union membership in the private sector is down around 6 percent.1 In the public sector, it is over 30 percent. Overall, the national rate is 10 percent unionized workers. This decline in union membership began under the Reagan administration, when Reagan crushed the Air Traffic Controllers’ union, and the Democratic Party, other unions, and workers in general (who should have held enormous protests and walk-outs) looked on, evidently thinking ‘it can’t happen here.’ Instead, there has been a precipitous decline. This is the main reason why the minimum wage is worth so much less than it was 50 years ago, adjusting for inflation.

Poverty is higher in ‘right-to-work’ states than higher-union-membership states. Of the 10 poorest states (those receiving the most federal support relative to their tax contributions), nine are ‘right-to-work’ states. In effect, these states are supported by prosperous, highly unionized states like California. Twelve of the 15 states with the worst pay gaps between men and women are ‘right-to-work’ states. (Note: It is admittedly hard to compare states’ economies in a useful way. Some ‘right-to-work’ states have improved their economies by creating a pro-business environment, part of which is a lower cost of labor. Whether that is good for the laborers is another question.)

The U.S. Chamber of Congress, business interests such as the Koch brothers, libertarians and conservatives (though not all) have lobbied extensively for passage of a national ‘right-to-work’ act.  Clearly, their prefer-ence would be for a workplace in which the employer has all the power, untrammeled by collective bargaining, laws concerning wages and benefits, or worker rights regulations.

A few interesting exceptions have been made, such as in the case of Michigan’s battle over public unions, where police and firefighters (traditionally Republican sup-porters) were allowed to keep their unions, and the teachers, faculty, and other state and municipal employees were not. After Michigan, Wisconsin, and other states lost the battle for union representation, they saw the legislature pass laws restricting academic freedom and banning tenure. The real wages of Wisconsin teachers dropped 10% in five years.

Would the CSU Board of Trustees love to have complete discretion over our pay, benefits, work hours/workload, and other terms of employment? Would they stand up for the traditional academic institutions of tenure and academic freedom? What do you think?

Why would any worker think such a situation is desirable? No one likes paying taxes, dues, fees, charges, and so on. Evidently, even the multi-millionaires who rule us don’t want to pay them, let alone those who are struggling to make a living.

People take for granted the rights at work won by sweat and bloodshed during the labor movement, including the right to form unions in all sorts of trades and professions. Some think we cannot lose these rights, but workers all over the country are already losing them. We shouldn’t give them up because something calling itself a ‘Freedom Foundation’ tells you that you can give yourself a raise for Christmas by not paying union dues or fees.

This movement is a power grab having nothing to do with improving our (workers’) freedom, rights, or finances. Make no mistake: national ‘right-to-work’ is coming our way, and it is wrong.

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Most of the statistics in this article are from the Bureau of Labor Statistics 2016 report

Also consult the web site of the California Labor Federation

Kahlenberg and Marvit in the New Republic

Data show poverty is higher in ‘right-to-work’ states than in higher-union-membership states