Right To What?

This is a purely political post. Sort of. Maybe a bit philosophical. Anyway, you’re all sharp, you can figure it out.

I’m voting No on this proposition A thing. Right To Work.  For decades we’ve been seeing this pushed on us in Missouri and it always fails, but with the current climate of “throw everything out” that seems to dominate a lot of popular thinking, the proponents are wearing the rest of us down.

A simple fact: workers in right to work states make less on average.  This is not rocket science. They have a weaker collective bargaining base, the unions lack resources because non-members are often entitled to receiving the same representational benefits without having to contribute, and overall unions are simply less present in such states. Here is a good overview if you’re interested.

Now, when presented with the idea that we all have a “right to work” and should not have that right hindered by the requirements of union membership, it sounds pretty righteous to certain people. Yeah, just who do those guys think they are making me pay dues just to “allow” me to have a job? It sounds so reasonable.

You have to accept a couple of things for this to make any sense. The first, that Management has workers’ interests in mind. Ever. Some do, it’s true, but historically workers take close to a last place position in the priorities of employers, because they have all these fiscal details they have to take care of. And if the company is large enough to have shareholders, guess who’s first in line for consideration? Again, this is not rocket science.

If workers do not insist on fair treatment they will not get it. They will be treated as parts. And to insist on fair treatment without some kind of weight behind the insistence only results in unemployment.

The ethical or philosophical basis of “right to work” may have its positives, but the reality is that abandoning collective bargaining and legislating against it and stripping unions of their ability to function effectively benefits only one group. Because “fairness” aside, it ought to be obvious that for the last 50 years the erosion of unions has resulted in our current antagonistic relationship between corporations and employees to the detriment of employees.

It’s not just pay, either. Without collective bargaining and contract law setting the terms, businesses can fire at will for any reason. That’s what they’re trying for.

It should also be put to rest that corporations are “struggling” to meet payrolls. There are many examples of companies that pay well for similar work and do better than their penurious competitors (Costco for one).  When you see annual reports from companies that see profits going ever upward, often at the expense of their employees, the lie should be obvious.

Now, what is reasonable is the notion that some kind of reform needs to take place in this relationship, but meaningful reform will not happen if you give all the power to just one side. Whether we like it or not, profits drive decision-making, and shareholder benefits will always outweigh workers’ rights unless there is the force of contract law brought to bear. You cannot do that without viable union involvement, and things like Proposition A are nothing but an attempt to render harmless union power.

But for a moment, let’s look at that phrase, Right To Work. Rarely has there been a better example of doublespeak. Firstly, while such a right may be argued to exist, it’s a meaningless right when all the other factors are brought into play.  Like qualifications. You may well have a right to work but if there is no work available that you can do, it doesn’t mean much. By phrasing it as a “right” it sounds like it should be in the constitution—but if it were, more likely than not we would have a federal workers union at a national level, because securing rights has always—always—been a matter of forcing someone to concede them. The average employee at a nine-to-five job is not, much as some might wish to construe it, an independent contractor. No company negotiates individual contracts with its hires. No company would unless forced to.  And it’s not as if the people this is targeted at are not employed. Many, probably most, are.

There is no “right” to work. There is opportunity. But no right. Not unless it is made. Because of the nature of work and business and employment in this country, if there were such a right it would obligate the very people who want to strip it from you to provide employment regardless of circumstance.  The proponents of Proposition A know this perfectly well, so their arguments in support of it are lies.  This is not about your rights but their privileges.  This about securing companies a right to reduce payroll, lay off with impunity, and require longer hours and provide fewer benefits. Period. At best, this would be a right to do the same work for less pay.

This is of a piece with all the other moves in recent times to simply secure larger pay-outs to shareholders, which is what has already happened with the new tax cuts. We keep getting told this will allow companies to invest more and hire more people—and it rarely happens. Most job growth comes from start-ups or from major refocusing by existing companies changing what they do. For the most part, none of these companies need more employees. There are exceptions. Construction right now has a shortfall of available workers, but again there are other factors involved in that than union meddling.  Instead, what we see, time and time again, is pay-outs to shareholders instead of that much predicted and rarely delivered reinvestment.

Stop believing they have your interests at heart. Some might well feel an obligation, but the nature of business in this country makes such people vulnerable to  all manner of piranha-like behavior on the part of their competition. What they would have you believe is something like this: “Let us take away your ability to force us to pay a fair wage and provide benefits and as a reward we will pay you even more!” There is no reality where that is remotely plausible. What is needed is a reassessment of how we do business with an eye toward reducing some of the predatory models that force us into these narrow defiles of limited-resource thinking.

Now, a personal disclaimer. I have never worked for a company as a union member. I’ve worked for one large company that had no union and was very aggressive at preventing unionizing. The history of that company is instructive. It began as a local business and grew to have a number of outlets. They paid a reasonable salary and provided commissions on high-dollar items. The sales force was happy. The local owner got old and sold the whole thing to a national company, which promptly cut wages in half and eliminated commissions. Most of the seasoned staff left and the company then took to hiring younger workers they knew would only be there for a short time because of the low pay. They saw no benefit in nurturing a staff. They didn’t care. After working for them for 14 months, I got a .10 an hour raise—and my hours were limited to 37 a week so there was never a possibility of overtime. The new company was based in Texas, which had been a right to work state since 1947.

To wrap up, I’m voting no. I might sympathize with some of the philosophical notions underlying the idea, but as far as I’m concerned a whole lot else has to change to constrain corporations before I’ll believe any good will come out handing over power through legal fiat and trusting the other side will play fair.

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