Saturday, February 8, 2020

Right to Work: Debate Then and Now

Press rooms in heavily-unionized New York and California have a narrative about right-to-work laws. They say these laws were passed by Southern states in the Jim Crow era to ensure a supply of low-wage African-American labor. Union leaders join in, calling Right-to-Work a right to work for less (SIU).

What the argument comes down to is a debate on whether the Closed Shop should be allowed. In a Closed Shop, employers are bound by union contract to only hire members. In contrast, in an Open Shop, employers may control the hiring process. A Right-to-Work state prohibits the Closed Shop.
Right-to-Work laws emerged shortly after World War Two, from Texas to Virginia. These laws would later be passed in the Mountain West. In the North, union loyalty remained strong among blue-collar Whites. African-Americans fought to join unions, which controlled hiring on lucrative, blue-collar middle-class jobs. Many of these involved contracts for immense public-works projects of the era. 

However, until the 1960’s, the Federal government tended to view labor unions as private associations exempt from due process. This held true even if the union held Closed Shop privileges. In some cases, racial discrimination was written into union by-laws; in others, nepotism ensured that sons and nephews of members filled the entry ranks.    Immense pressure by African-American groups upon City Halls, with sympathy from upscale Whites, wedged a token opening for minorities to join labor unions as equals. Furthermore, the Eisenhower administration considered using proposed national Right-to-Work legislation to right a civil wrong. In the South, unionization of railroad employers often led to a loss of skilled jobs for African-Americans, according to then-contemporary Herbert Hill.

Right-to-Work need not be the death sentence of labor unions. Unions which provide value to members, and to employers, will always be in demand. At OSG, a major ship-owning company (pre-2013), Licensed Deck Officers voted to disband its collective bargaining agreement. This was a move discouraged by the company, as the union representing the company’s mates provided surge labor, training, medical services, and a retirement plan. The company couldn’t imagine life without its labor unions. For disclosure, I am a proud, dues-paying union member.

Note: Janus vs. AFSCME concerns a different issue. This decision has been criticized as one enabling “freeloaders” to collect the benefits of membership without paying dues.

“Labor Unions and the Negro”, Herbert Hill. Circa July 1959. Found on
“Why Are Anti-Union Laws Called “Right To Work”?, Brian Palmer, Slate. 12/12/2012.

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