I've been unusually prolific in writing op-eds in the Charleston Gazette lately, mostly because things are so awful. Here's the latest, about efforts to bring right-to-work-for-less to WV. Somebody has to feed the trolls.
It’s starting to feel like open season on working people at the state Capitol.
First, the Senate Government Organization committee pushed through a bill attacking West Virginia’s prevailing wage law, which could reduce the number and quality of local jobs for local workers. It could also compromise worker safety while opening the door to cheap, low-quality labor from out-of-state for public projects.
If that wasn’t enough, there is also likely to be a push for misnamed “right to work” legislation, which has nothing to do with the right to employment. It can more accurately be called “right-to-work-for-less.”
If enacted, it promises to speed up the shrinking of what remains of the middle class in West Virginia and adversely impact non-union as well as union workers.
Here’s a brief summary of the situation: As things now stand in free labor states like West Virginia, if the majority of eligible workers in a private sector site vote to join a union in an election overseen by the National Labor Relations Board, all workers belong to the union.
Getting to that point isn’t easy, as some employers intimidate workers in an effort to discourage or defeat the election.
Once in a union, all workers then have the right to representation in the event of grievances and all benefit from the wages, job safety, benefits and working conditions negotiated by the union, which can be substantial.
After a successful vote to organize, if the majority of workers no longer want to be represented by the union, they can petition for a vote to decertify the union.
(Historical note: the coal miners who worked at Massey’s Upper Big Branch mine were once represented by the United Mine Workers union. Once Massey acquired the mine, it was successful in pushing through an election to decertify the union. You know how that story ended.)
The current process for union representation is no different from any other kind of election. For example, if the majority of voters elect someone to political office, that person will generally serve in that position until he or she retires or is voted out of office. Or if duly elected representatives pass a law, that law goes into effect until it is repealed by other legislation or declared unconstitutional by the courts.
Further, if a union member conscientiously objects to the use of union dues to support other purposes than direct representation, he or she has the right under the Supreme Court Beck decision to pay reduced dues that only cover those expenses.
Right-to-work-for-less laws undermine the basic democratic process. In states that have such legislation, unions are legally obligated to represent all workers, even those who don’t support the costs of such representation. The free riders get all the benefits of membership without contributing to the cost of getting them. In the end, this drags down wages and benefits for everyone.
If that kind of thing applied to other areas, I suppose you could drive 100 miles per hour in a school zone if you didn’t want to be represented by the officials who set the speed limit.
So much for the technicalities of the law: Why should we care about this?
n First, if right-to-work-for-less laws were a cure-all for quality of life and well-being, we’d expect states that have them to be at the top of the list on such things. However, last year, Politico compiled the results of 14 state rankings on quality of life issues, such as income, education levels, graduation rates, life expectancy, crime, etc. They came up with a ranking for 50 states and the District of Columbia. It didn’t specifically look at labor laws.
Only three of the top 10 states ranked for quality of life had right-to-work-for-less laws. On the other hand, all five of the lowest-ranked states did. Right-to-work-for-less states made up only nine of the top 25 states, but 15 of the bottom 25.
That reminds me of some drug commercials on television, where side effects sound worse than the conditions the pills aim to cure.
n Second, wages for all workers are lower in right-to-work-for-less states than in free labor states. According to the Economic Policy Institute, the average worker makes $1,500 or 3.2 percent less per year in those states than comparable workers in free states, even if you factor in differences in the cost of living.
n Third, a 2011 study found that employer-provided health insurance and employer-sponsored pensions were both lower in those states than in free labor states.
It’s true that union members generally earn higher wages than their non-union counterparts. They are also more likely to have health care benefits, paid sick leave, vacations, and pensions. Those are the kinds of benefits that make for stable families and communities.
However, there is a positive “spillover effect” from union to non-union workers. Many non-union employers offer competitive wages and benefits due to the standards set by collective bargaining agreements. Some employers even pay higher than union wages to avoid unionization.
Further, some of the basic things that we take for granted as part of living in a decent society are hard-won gains that union members fought and sometimes died to gain for everyone. These include things like the abolition of child labor, basic safety regulations, limits to the hours someone can be compelled to work, overtime laws and programs such as Social Security.
In the public policy arena, union members frequently support legislation that benefits all workers, not just union members. To use a local example, last year, unions supported an increase in the state minimum wage, even though their members earn higher wages. Labor has also been in the front lines of other struggles for justice, such as the Civil Rights movement.
Bottom line: if extremists in the West Virginia Legislature push this law through, it won’t just affect union members. It will drag down many more working families and communities and speed up our race to the bottom.