The Spark

“The emancipation of the working class will only be achieved by the working class itself.” — Karl Marx

“Right-to-Work” Laws:
Are the Capitalists Preparing to Dump the Unions?

Oct 23, 2012

On February 1, 2012, Indiana became the 23rd state to pass so-called “right-to-work” legislation. Significantly, it was the first state in the industrial heartland to call in question the old field on which the unions had long been playing. All the other “right-to-work” states were either in the “Solid South” or in the prairie states and mountain West. But Indiana had been part of the unions’ own stronghold.

Moreover, with only four exceptions, all the other right-to-work states had passed their laws long ago, immediately after the 1947 Taft-Hartley amendments to the National Labor Relations Act opened the legal door for them to do it. That first anti-union push came in the midst of the virulent anti-communist and often anti-union McCarthy period.

So, does Indiana mark the beginning of a new historical push? It seems very possible, even if the official Republican Party has downplayed the issue in the last few months coming into the election. Republicans had introduced “right-to-work” bills in 12 states in 2011, and, at the beginning of 2012, reintroduced most of those that didn’t pass.

Furthermore, similar legislation affecting public sector unions was passed in Wisconsin and Ohio in 2011, also union strongholds. The Ohio law may have been subsequently overturned early this year in a popular referendum organized by the unions, but that didn’t prevent Republicans in other states from introducing similar legislation against public sector workers and unions afterwards.

“Right to work,” as a name for these laws, couldn’t be more fraudulent. It has never given a worker the “right” to a job, or the “right” to work. Even the Supreme Court of Idaho – a solid Republican state – ruled in 1985 that the term could not be used on a ballot initiative because it was so “misleading.”

What these laws actually do is prohibit contractual requirements that every worker must join a union and/or pay union dues in workplaces where a union has been officially recognized.

Reacting to this elimination of the automatic requirement to pay dues to the union, union leaders have traditionally argued that the spread of “right-to-work” laws will weaken the union movement and drive down the standard of living of every worker, while making it harder to organize the unorganized.

In fact, putting the focus on “right-to-work” obscures the real issue driving the fall in union numbers, as well as the fall in the workers’ standard of living and worsening job conditions. All of these developments are tied very directly to the policy led by union officialdom for decades.

Extreme Right Takes the Offensive

One thing is certain: right-to-work laws and similar laws impacting public sector workers would reduce the amount of money flowing into union treasuries. The example of Wisconsin shows just how rapid and severe a drop that can be. One of the laws pushed through in 2011 by the new Republican governor, Scott Walker, threw out contract language requiring all public sector workers to pay dues to unions that are recognized. Within months of the law’s passage, the number of dues-payers in AFSCME Council 24 fell from 22,300 to 7,100. Some of that loss reflected job cuts, but most of it came because public sector workers, when left to decide for themselves, chose not to pay.

It’s no surprise that the Republicans would try to undermine the unions’ dues income. After all, the unions contribute an important part of the funding and manpower for the Democratic Party’s election campaigns.

But the attack goes far beyond partisan politics. Beyond the right-to-work type of bills introduced this year in state legislatures, were hundreds of other bills aimed at cutting into the standard of living of working people by reducing the wages, benefits and working conditions of public sector workers and teachers. Over one-third of these bills were copied almost word for word from “model legislation” drawn up by the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC).

ALEC may have been pushed forward by some extreme-right-wing billionaires like the Koch brothers or Richard Mellon Scaife. But major corporations provide ALEC with much of its funding. For example, money came from: American Express, Bank of America, JP Morgan Company, Kraft Foods, Coors Brewing, Miller Brewing, Coca Cola, Pepsi Cola, Intuit, Dell, Hewlett-Packard, Amazon.com, Blue Cross and Blue Shield Corporation, GlaxoSmithKline, Johnson & Johnson, ExxonMobil, General Motors, Ford, Chrysler, Pfizer, Peabody Energy, State Farm Insurance, Allstate Insurance Company, GEICO, United Parcel Service, McDonalds and WalMart, as well as from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. ALEC is also supported by trade associations like the American Council of Life Insurance, the American Electric Power Association, the Natural Gas Supply Association, the American Petroleum Institute and PhRMA, the association representing the big pharmaceutical companies.

The number of major corporations that have stepped up to fund ALEC certainly implies that an important part of the capitalist class is not only aiming to further reduce the standard of living of the working class, but is also considering whether to tear up the friendly, if occasionally uneasy, relationship it has had with the unions for decades.

In the face of this attack, what response can workers have to defend themselves and their freedom to organize?

Union Shop, Dues Check-Off: Big Gifts to an Incipient Bureaucracy

The arrangement attacked by “right-to-work” laws was established before World War II. Having long opposed any idea that industrial workers could have a union, the capitalists were facing determined strikes in the mid-1930s, through which workers were creating their unions and imposing their demands. That expanding strike wave caused the most class-conscious sections of the bourgeoisie to shift gears in an attempt to channel the movement into a narrow and legalistic path, using provisions set up by the Wagner Act in 1935. Nonetheless, the workers’ movement still expanded, with strikes flooding into more strikes and into factory occupations, pulling along the unemployed, the poor farmers and the youth without a job. The working class was shaking American capitalism, and it was following communists, socialists, Trotskyists and other radicals to do it.

A real turning point came with the Ford strike of 1941. Virulently anti-union up to then, Henry Ford was faced with the first total shutdown of his fiefdom at the Rouge Complex in Dearborn Michigan. He rapidly agreed to the workers’ demand to deal with their union. But then he trumped their demand. In the negotiations that took place after the strike, he proposed that Ford should be a union shop, that is, not only would the union represent everyone, as required by the recently upheld Wagner Act, but every worker would have to join it and pay dues to it; and furthermore, the company would deduct union dues from the workers’ paychecks to relieve the union apparatus of that responsibility. It is significant that it was Ford who proposed this, not the workers and not the militants who had led the organizing of the strike.

Ford’s proposals meant that the apparatus that was already being imposed upon the unions didn’t have to convince anyone to join, it didn’t have to collect dues. Not dependent on the workers for union funds, the apparatus wouldn’t have to take the workers into account. Union shop and dues check-off taken together were a very important gift to a rapidly developing union apparatus, making it much easier for that apparatus as it moved to impose bureaucratic control over the ranks.

The fact that every worker had to join the union and every worker had to pay union dues, and that bosses took those dues out of the workers’ pockets before the workers ever saw them certainly did not mean that the workers were more unified, nor better organized. In fact, it was a kind of demobilizing trick.

Many companies were quick to follow what Ford had done. In that period when the mobilization of the working class was still fresh in the bosses’ minds, they understood the value of having a union apparatus dependent on the companies’ paymasters.

Divorced from the ranks, escaping the workers’ control, the apparatus could rapidly develop a heavy handed control over the functioning of the unions – and of their policy. And, dependent on the bosses for funds, the growing union bureaucracy increasingly aligned its policy with that of the bosses. It was the beginning of a long partnership.

The union apparatuses quickly repaid their new partners by signing a no-strike pledge as World War II opened. But with inflation taking over, company profits soaring, and conditions in the plants worsening, the ranks ignored the pledge. Wildcat strikes were the order of the day all through the war, and they were opposed by the upper levels of the unions’ apparatus at almost every turn.

“Follow the money trail” – that’s what investigators searching out corruption say. Well, this money trail leads right back to the companies, which are paying union bureaucracies to guarantee social peace, or at least as little unrest as possible. In this case, the companies don’t even have to reach into their own pockets to do it. They simply lift the union dues every month out of the workers’ wages and hand them over.

Henry Ford helped set another deadly precedent at the end of the same 1941 strike. He agreed to recognize the workers’ demands for a union – on the condition that workers would record their decision through the mechanics of an NLRB-conducted election. And he proposed that he would discuss the workers’ wage demands with top union officials – as soon as the workers stopped their strike. Top UAW officials and government officials worked for the next eight days to convince the Ford workers that they should stop their strike before their demands were settled. They finally gave in, but by a very small margin.

It was obvious in 1941 that the workers would vote for their union. There was no practical reason for that vote. But that election in 1941 set a precedent: it fastened the idea on the labor movement that workers couldn’t have the union they’d organized unless the government “certified” it. Henceforth, the NLRB, through an election it supervised, following rules it set up, would decide. That 1941 election helped fasten on the working class the pernicious idea that the state apparatus could be a “neutral” arbiter, resolving disputes in the class struggle.

These precedents set at Ford helped the union bureaucracies rapidly develop and establish themselves over and above the working class. And those bureaucracies were reinforced by government repression during World War II and the McCarthy period, repression that eliminated many of the militants who had led the strikes of the 1930s.

(For a brief history of the development of one of those bureaucracies, see our article in Class Struggle #67, “From the 2009 NO-Vote by Ford Workers, to the 2010 Convention to the 2011 Contracts,” part of which shows the role played for decades by the UAW’s so-called “Administration Caucus” in holding back the fight of auto workers.)

Company-Union Partnership against the Working Class

The early 1980s were marked by “concessions.” The union bureaucracies, with the UAW in the lead, agreed with the bosses that it was necessary for workers to give up some of the gains made in earlier decades. That was in the middle of a severe downturn of the economy, coming after two quick shocks in the mid and late 1970s, when unemployment had jumped rapidly. With the still more serious recessions of the early 1980s, marked by widespread plant closings, the UAW bureaucracy began the refrain that other union bureaucracies picked up: give up some of your wages, benefits and working conditions “temporarily” in order to save your jobs. They never once proposed that workers could fight to defend both. The bureaucracies pushed the idea that the only way workers could defend themselves was to work hard to improve company profits.

The USWA bureaucracy had already worked hard to convince steel workers that their future lay in helping their bosses compete with foreign imports. American steel workers were told that they were losing their jobs, thanks to competition with the Japanese steelmakers. In fact, steel workers were losing their jobs in the push by U.S. steelmakers for much greater productivity. The U.S. steelmakers were “competing” with the Japanese steelmakers only in the search for greater profits.

It seemed to be a very big shift by unions that traditionally had been viewed as the guarantors of a so-called “middle class” life-style for industrial workers.

In fact, almost from the beginning, the policy of the USWA and the UAW, just like the policy of other unions that followed in their wake, had been based on the idea that the workers’ well-being was dependent on the companies’ well-being. If workers’ wages were to go up, then company profits needed to go up that much faster, pushed up by job eliminations and increasing productivity. Moreover, that so-called “middle-class” lifestyle never touched most workers.

Today, the rottenness of the unions’ policies is clearly evident. No longer do the union bureaucracies pretend that the concessions the workers give up will be regained. The concessions have become permanent. Wages are reduced, benefits disappear, working conditions are much tougher, overtime premiums, which once were the way to put some limit on long hours, have practically been done away with.

Not for nothing do workers ironically complain today that “the union” – by which they mean the union apparatus – speaks and acts just like the company. This apparatus has long been the companies’ junior partner.

Occasionally, as with the Chrysler wildcat strikes in 1973, or the “illegal” miners’ strike of 1978, or the UPS strike in 1997, a workers’ mobilization broke the control of the bureaucrats temporarily. But inevitably the union apparatus and/or the state apparatus worked to break those movements and bring them back under control, including by using part of the union apparatus and the state against any union official who stepped out of line.

Defending the interests of the bosses, the bureaucracy demobilized and disorganized the workers. The UAW, known for strikes in its earlier years, has not carried out a major company- wide auto strike since the 1976 Ford strike, 36 years ago! The overall downward trend of strikes in the country – going from 424 major strikes in 1974 down to 19 in 2011 – is a real indicator of that demobilization. Of course, the rate of unionization has gone down. The workers have never widely organized in unions outside of periods when they mobilized and fought militantly.

The union apparatuses blame the lack of union organizing in the South and elsewhere on the right-to-work laws that already exist. Those laws don’t prevent workers from organizing – they deprive the union apparatuses of a way to get money without organizing! What has blocked the extension of unions in this country – for decades now – is the fact that the unions are not fighting, not calling on their members to fight to defend what they have and to extend it. Why would a Southern worker employed by Toyota or Honda want to join the UAW when he sees the UAW apparatus pushing the ranks to give up what they once had?

Today, the situation of the unionized workers bumps from one disaster to another. First auto workers were targeted, then public sector workers, then teachers – and all of this without a single proposal by top union leaders to use the workers’ forces against these attacks. And when local leaders proposed to make a fight, as Chicago teachers did, they faced pressure coming from top union leaders, as well as pressure from city officials and the judicial system.

The union bureaucracies accept the bosses’ lies: that there is no money, that the companies are in danger, the cities near default, the state unable to pay for schools. They do not propose that workers should put their own needs and interests first, and let the bosses and their state apparatus fend for themselves. They do not point out how much wealth has already been accumulated from the workers’ labor, wealth that could be use to maintain or even improve the workers’ standard of living. Thus, they give the workers no perspective.

When the union bureaucracy seeks to defend its own interests, as it did in Wisconsin, it ends up demoralizing the workers, workers who had proved themselves eager to mobilize and make a fight. After Walker passed the legislation prohibiting dues check off, union officials jumped into action, mobilizing the ranks, condemning Walker for his attacks on workers’ wages and pensions, along with his attack on the dues-collecting arrangement. But almost immediately, AFSCME leaders said quite pointedly that they were ready to accept reductions in pensions and increases in medical care costs for public employees IF Walker and the state legislature agreed to negotiate those cuts with the unions and back off the attack on dues check-off. The junior partner didn’t want to be cut out.

It’s hardly surprising that workers in Wisconsin rapidly stopped paying their dues when given a chance. The Wisconsin state administration was clever enough to put the new increase in deductions for medical care into the same paycheck when dues would have been collected. Workers had to decide whether to keep paying their dues. Over two thirds of them decided not to pay.

Not calling on the workers to fight to maintain their own wages, the union apparatus was not even able to defend its own privileges – in this case, dues income.

The contrast to Ohio is revealing. The new Republican governor in Ohio made a similar attack on the union apparatus combined with an attack on the workers’ pensions and wages. But the Ohio governor was foolish enough to combine those separate attacks effectively into one measure. In order to defend their dues collections, the union apparatus had to defend workers’ wages, too! When the union apparatus called on the ranks to mobilize to put a referendum on the ballot, then to campaign for overturning the new law, the ranks responded, enough to influence friends, neighbors, fellow church and club members, sports clubs. The new statute was overturned by a sizeable 61% majority. Was the policy of the union leaders in Ohio different? Undoubtedly not, but they had no other way to defend their own interests than to try to defend the workers’ interests at that same time. In such a case, working people lined up to throw back the attack. Of course, that referendum isn’t the same as a fight. And it won’t end the attacks, but it shows how the workers’ support for unions depends on whether the unions seem to defend the workers.

What Policy for the Workers Facing an Attack from the Right

Today, it seems, the capitalist class or important parts of it may be ready to junk their junior partners. Those union apparatuses may have been helpful in imposing concessions on the workers. They may have been very useful in keeping the working class dormant – but they still cost a little money. Given a working class that has effectively been quiet for decades, the American capitalist class may well believe it no longer needs the union bureaucracy to control things.

No one should doubt that the right-wing intends to weaken the working class with this legislative campaign it has been carrying out. And it’s also obvious that the attack on unions coming from the right, symbolized in the “right to work” laws, is not aimed at helping the working class to mobilize or defend itself.

But that doesn’t mean that militants who want to see the working class organize and the workers defend themselves should fall in lock-step behind the union bureaucracy, calling on workers to defend the bureaucracies’ privileges, which have been used to insulate the unions from the workers’ control for decades.

Why would workers want to defend dues check-off and union shop – something that was from the beginning a gift to the apparatus, fastening a millstone around the workers’ neck?

The workers’ first line of defense against this attack coming from the right is to fight to defend wages and jobs – for everyone. Such fights would bring people back into the unions, just as workers’ struggles did when the unions were formed, or at other times when workers really mobilized. In reality, workers have no other way to defend their freedom to organize than to fight for themselves and for the needs and the interests of their whole class.

Yes, a union needs members, and it needs dues. But a union whose policy is to defend the workers’ interests will have both.