Against “Right to Work” Legislation – a short and angry list of inconvenient details

10 Dec

As discussions about and demonstrations against Michigan’s “Right to Work” legislation reach their peak (or nadir, depending on the scale of your hostility towards workers), I thought I’d point out a few misunderstandings that have been critical to this arrogant legal deceit.

First, “Right to Work” legislation is not meant to give people the “freedom to work without union involvement”; i.e., it does not unyoke them from burdensome and imposed union dues. The ability to abstain from union membership is already enshrined by law. No one – no one – is currently obliged to pay dues against their will, nor are they prevented from working based on this abstention. In 1947, the Taft-Hartley Act prohibited “closed shops,” that is, workplaces wherein everyone had to be a union member. In its very name, “Right to Work” legislation is a lie.

What the law might actually change is whether workers have to contribute to specific bargaining costs. In most situations relevant here, all workers in a shop, factory, industry (if lucky) are members of a bargaining unit. This is distinct from a union in itself. A bargaining unit represents all workers under a specific contract to an employer, and represents them as a collective during contract negotiations. This is opposed to an employee-by-employee, individualized negotiation process that would, and has, profoundly undercut wages, benefits, etc., by pitting worker against worker in a race to the bottom. Collective bargaining, which is predicated on bargaining units, is fundamental to whatever remains of the dignity, influence and protection of the North American worker. Importantly, and I repeat this, a worker is part of these negotiations regardless of union involvement, and is represented by a bargaining committee regardless of paying union dues. As this is a time- and labour-intensive process, however, they are obliged to pay for their representation at the bargaining table. Those who want to opt out of these fees would invariably be represented anyway, but would be represented for free, at the cost of their fee-paying colleagues. While the distinction between these fees and union dues might be muddied, consider a parallel to broader governance: you pay taxes for services, “public goods,” that are unconnected to your political affiliation; you can then choose, regardless of those taxes, to support and join a specific political party. The former is payment for services that are necessary to the functioning of a healthy society, of which you are inescapably a part; the latter are a matter of personal choice and commitment.

Second, studies show that RTW legislation in the 23 states that have it has been coincident with an average increase of 26% in manufacturing jobs. This suggests employment moves to those places with weaker bargaining units. Not much of a surprise there. However, in these cases the RTW laws have usually gone hand-in-hand with broader “business attracting” policies (read: environmental deregulation, health and safety laxity, financial incentives and subsidies) so these numbers are tricky to ground. Opposing them, and with the same statistical flaws, are studies that show that in non-RTW states average wages are $1500 higher, employer-sponsored health insurance is 2.6% higher, and employer-sponsored pensions are 4.8% higher. And considering manufacturing, when it is “brought back onshore,” leads to decreasing job creation (see Paul Krugman’s recent NYT post:, we might want to start protecting the quality of the jobs we do have, rather than sacrificing workers on the altar of business worship.

Third, those who ideologically support RTW legislation as a means of “freeing the market” … well, I doubt they’re reading this blog post. I would point them, and urge you to point them, to the fact that there is no “free market,” nor has there ever been one. “Reducing signal noise” by “freeing rational actors” to “rationally choose how to work, spend, or wither” is pop economics. The sort of “rational actor” we take as the first step in free-market arguments is a fiction that my own discipline, anthropology, has shown again and again to be groundless. The “cost/risk analysis” in which this actor is meant to engage is a rational calculus performed by no one in the world (I stress “in the world,” as there are many who perform it on paper from comfortable ergonomic chairs in think tanks). This was an analytic devised by followers of sadist Italian economist Vilfredo Pareto, whose measure of economic efficiency was an arbitrary one meant to counteract the more “equality and redistribution” theories of the Utilitarians. It and its children are predicated on a notion of “the market” as a disembedded and transcendental system outside of local idioms of goodness, non-economic value, and villainy. And those who argue for it and act on it do so disingenuously, arguing for “free markets” while ignoring the fact that American foreign policy is, for instance, effectively subsidizing domestic industry through import-led interventions (including military support and development, e.g., in Israel) in its client states, props up the oil industry, bails out banks, and engages in innumerable other “market distortions” to suit those who otherwise clamour for its freedom and purity. Collectively-bargaining workers are just one “distortion” – in favour of the most vulnerable and subject – against an overwhelmingly systematic distortion in favour of business interests. In this balance, it is a corrective, not an isolated bias and uniquely selfish tactic, and a hard-won one at that. To say otherwise is to ignore history, and would be high buffoonery if it weren’t so convenient for those hell-bent on ruining lives. And to profit from this fragile process without having to contribute, cloaking selfishness in free-market ideals and the promiscuous word “freedom”, is in definitively poor taste.


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