Kicking Underdogs When They’re Down
Americans love an underdog. Maybe it’s an artifact of the American Revolution, when a rag-tag rabble of farmers and frontiersmen defeated the disciplined and well-provisioned military of the most powerful nation on earth.
Even though the United States has usurped most powerful status, Americans still ally with Davids in contests with Goliaths. They love to see a top dog taken down a notch. They rooted for the perennial loser Red Sox in the 2004 World Series and reveled in the win by America’s unseasoned ice hockey team in the 1980 Winter Olympics.
That’s why the sudden surge of right-to-work (for less) legislation is so confounding. Right-to-work (for less) laws are perks for the wealthy, for the top dogs. These laws facilitate destruction of unions. The concerted action of a labor union is a tool that workers use to win fair wages, benefits and conditions from the powerful, from the likes of massive multi-national corporations. At a time of dwindling union membership, at a time when labor union participation is so small as to be nearly negligible, state legislatures across the country are taking up right-to-work (for less) laws that will further decimate union ranks. They’re kicking the underdog when it’s down.
Despite the derisive “big union boss” label that right wingers throw at labor leaders, unions are not the big dogs. Union representation in the United States has declined steadily since the 1950s, following federal legislation in 1947 impeding unionization. Just after World War II, about 35 percent of workers belonged to unions. And those who didn’t benefitted from the higher wages and good benefits that union workers negotiated because non-union employers felt compelled to provide competitive compensation. Last year, the percentage of U.S. workers in unions fell to 11.9, the lowest in more than 70 years.
As unions atrophied and the recession raged, the median income of working Americans declined. Meanwhile, at the top, the big dogs who run corporations continued awarding themselves colossal compensation and bonus packages. Median compensation for executives quadrupled over the past four decades. Last year, most executives got big bumps, whether their companies did well or not. Now, income inequality is greater than at any time since the robber baron days of the 1920s.
Still, somehow, legislatures across the country are rooting for CEOs, the top dogs, and bashing unions. Lawmakers in Ohio, Wisconsin, Arizona, Oklahoma, Idaho, New Hampshire, Tennessee, and South Dakota have attacked public sector unions. Politicians in South Carolina, Minnesota, New Hampshire, even Michigan and West Virginia are pushing right-to-work (for less) legislation.
Republican-controlled Indiana actually passed it this year. The law forbids companies and unions from negotiating terms that require every worker benefitting from the contract to pay his or her share of the cost of bargaining it. In other words, these laws allow workers to refuse to pay union dues and simply freeload on those who do.
Right-to-work (for less) is great for CEOs. It enables them to pocket more of the profits because such laws weaken unions, ultimately resulting in lower pay and benefits for workers, both those who are in unions and those who are not. Oklahoma’s experience illustrates the sad fact that right-to-work (for less) guarantees lower pay for workers, while not ensuring them more jobs.
Oklahoma adopted right-to-work (for less) a decade ago, the last state to favor the big dogs before Indiana. It joined other right-to-work (for less) states where wages are 3.2 percent lower; the likelihood of employers providing health coverage is 2.6 percent lower, and the rate of employer-sponsored pensions is 4.8 percent lower. These tragic statistics are detailed in the Economic Policy Institute (EPI) report, “The Compensation Penalty of ‘Right-to-Work Laws.”
Oklahoma workers didn’t get additional jobs out of the deal either. That’s documented in a study titled, “Does Right-to-Work Create Jobs?” Its authors, a labor expert and an economist at EPI, determined the law had no effect on jobs.
But CEOs, the 1 percent, do benefit. A 2009 study by Hofstra University Business Research Institute Director Lonnie K. Stevans shows that right-to-work (for less) is exactly that for employees but the opposite for CEOs. Stevans writes:
“Wages and personal income are both lower in right-to-work states, yet proprietors’ income is higher.”
The “proprietors,” the top dogs, win. The workers, the underdogs, lose. And they’re defeated by a special advantage that lawmakers give to top dogs with right-to-work (for less) legislation.
It doesn’t make sense in a society enamored of underdogs. It doesn’t make sense to give additional perks to the already-advantaged. It doesn’t make sense to turn workers into beggars, but that’s what right-to-work (for less) laws do. They eviscerate unions, so that each worker is on his or her own to seek just compensation, benefits, job security and safe working conditions from massive multi-national corporations.
It is Oliver Twist, his gruel bowl upheld, begging of the workhouse overlord, “Please, sir, I want some more.” Oliver didn’t get it. And workers who are thwarted from collective action by this legislation won’t either.
To win fair wages, the underdogs must band together as a team.
Leo W. Gerard also is a member of the AFL-CIO Executive Committee and chairs the labor federation’s Public Policy Committee. President Barack Obama appointed him to the President’s Advisory Committee on Trade Policy and Negotiations. He serves as co-chairman of the BlueGreen Alliance and on the boards of Campaign for America’s Future and the Economic Policy Institute. He is a member of the IMF and ICEM global labor federations and was instrumental in creating Workers Uniting, the first global union. Follow @USWBlogger