February 2012

FOCUS 2012: Smart Choices for Our Future
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From the draconian crackdown on workers’ rights in Wisconsin to the pitched battle over collective bargaining in Ohio, the recent ascent of anti-labor politicians clearly illustrated how elections have consequences.

That lesson is still being learned. In Indiana, New Hampshire and other areas, both public and private sector workers are trying to hold back corporate-backed politicians who are pushing through so-called right-to-work laws that would further undermine wages and erode benefits negotiated at the bargaining table.

Over the next few months, as the campaign season picks up steam, look to the Electrical Worker and the news blog at www.ibew.org to cut through the partisan spin and report on the issues that matter most to working Americans. We'll be digging deep into issues like candidates' jobs plans, right-to-work, voter suppression, the future of project labor agreements and candidates' approaches to policies that support workers and a sound economy.



Corporate-Backed Lawmakers Push
'Right-to-Work' Laws

In an unprecedented signal of continuing attacks on workers that began a year ago, the Indiana state legislature's Republican majority opened its session in January with the goal of strong-arming through right-to-work legislation.

Reminiscent of Madison, Wis., where thousands of citizens occupied the Capitol for weeks, and the grassroots movement that brought down an unpopular Ohio law restricting bargaining rights, thousands of Hoosiers came to Indianapolis to bear witness on the opening day of the session.

Hoisting signs and banners emblazoned with slogans like "NO on RTW" and "Hoosiers Want Union Life Lines, Not State Bread Lines," citizens from across the spectrum — including building trades members, teachers, firefighters and private sector work— peacefully demonstrated in the statehouse Jan. 4.

The renewed struggle in Indiana began garnering national attention in December. Pro-worker advocates took to blogs and newspaper opinion pages to voice opposition to what they saw as a GOP and big-business power grab, and economists outlined the real-life effects of right-to-work on middle-class Americans' wallets. Talk show hosts Ed Shultz and Rachel Maddow also profiled the issue on their television shows.

The lawmakers began their session with the hope of making Indiana the first state to adopt right-to-work laws in more than a decade. Gov. Mitch Daniels came out in support of the measure in December, and the state Chamber of Commerce announced late last year that getting the law on the books was the group's highest priority.

IBEW Activists Push Back

Lafayette Local 668 member Brent Green knows from experience the serious repercussions this could have on families in the Hoosier state. The journeyman wireman gave a presentation recently at a town hall meeting to lay out the reasons why right-to-work laws are wrong for working people, and why union representation paves a better path for employees.

"I worked nonunion for years, and I faced every kind of problem — unsafe job conditions, low pay, no benefits," Green said. "I had a bad on-the-job injury that still causes me problems, and I had no way to pay for my medical bills.

"That all changed when I joined the IBEW, and right-to-work is just a smokescreen for union busting," he continued. "But it hurts everybody, not just the organized workers. Sure, we're fighting for our brothers and sisters at the hall, but the average person needs to know we're fighting for them as well. What a nonunion guy might not understand is that I set his wage. His wage is only competitive because of what I make. Do away with my ability to collectively bargain, and do you think his wage is going to stay high? Of course not."

IBEW activists in Indiana joined with teachers, firefighters and other workers last winter to protest a previous right-to-work push in the statehouse. Thousands of demonstrators helped convince legislators in the general assembly to scuttle the bill.

You Have the Right to Work … For Less

Right-to-work laws allow workers to opt out of paying union dues while still benefitting from collective bargaining agreements — a practice that weakens unions' negotiating power. Such laws are enforced in nearly half the states, mostly in the South or in the western part of the U.S., where workers have a diminished voice on the job and face more dangers at their work sites. Oklahoma adopted such legislation in 2001.

Supporters of the law argue that employees should not be obligated to pay dues. Labor leaders and progressive economists say this creates a "free rider" problem. Workers benefit from the protection of a collective bargaining agreement without contributing to the union responsible for negotiating their contracts, which include higher wages than most nonunion employers offer.

During the current campaign season, Republican presidential candidates Mitt Romney, Newt Gingrich, Ron Paul and others have touted right-to-work laws as a way to shore up job creation and increase workers' take home pay.

Recent findings from the Bureau of Labor Statistics tell a different story. Of the 22 states with right-to-work laws on the books, more than half have unemployment rates at or near the national average of about 9 percent. Ten right-to-work states are above the national average — significantly, in some cases (see table).


Does right-to-work lower unemployment?

Anti-worker lawmakers and many state Chambers of Commerce say right-to-work is good for job creators. Many right-to-work states have unemployment rates above the national average. You decide.

Right-to-work states map

Source: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics; National unemployment level based on Nov. 2011 data; State unemployment levels based on Oct. 2011 data; Union density based on 2010 data


University of Notre Dame professor of economics Marty Wolfson wrote in a January report that the law would have devastating effects on Indiana's middle class. "Unions will lose members and financial resources, they will have less bargaining power in negotiations with employers, and wages and benefits for workers represented by collective bargaining agreements will fall short of what they would have been without the law. This will also be true for other workers as well, since companies will feel less need to compete with union-scale wages and benefits."

The Economic Policy Institute also released a study last month by economist Gordon Lafer, who took right-to-work advocates to task for using misleading statistics to make the case for the legislation in Indiana.

"Rigorous, properly-designed studies have found that right-to-work laws reduce wages by $1,500 a year, for both union and nonunion workers, and lower the likelihood that union and nonunion employees get health care coverage or pensions through their jobs," states the report, entitled "Working Hard to Make Indiana Look Bad." "They have also found that the laws have no impact on job growth in states that adopt them."

Romney, who many eye as the prospective GOP nominee to run against President Obama in November, has come out in favor of signing into law national right-to-work legislation.

"There is a very strong likelihood that a Republican Congress and a Republican White House would pass a national right-to-work law," Gary Chaison, a labor-law professor at Clark University in Worcester, Mass., told Bloomberg News in November. "A Republican Congress," he said, "sees unions as part of the problem rather than part of the solution."

On Guard in the Granite State, and Beyond

At the ground game level, the battle over right-to-work reached fever pitch in New Hampshire late last year. Earlier in 2011, Democratic Gov. John Lynch vetoed right-to-work legislation when it was passed in the statehouse — and anti-worker lawmakers tried to overturn that veto in November.

Working people scored a major victory when the legislature failed by 12 votes to make New Hampshire the 23rd right-to-work state. Manchester Local 2320 Business Manager Glenn Brackett was one of many IBEW leaders who helped rally protestors to help convince legislators — including several Republic— to sustain the veto.

"It was a huge sea of red IBEW T-shirts at the statehouse," Brackett said. "When the other side failed to come up with the votes, it was vindicating. But it also showed how unnecessary all of this is. There's no need for a so-called right-to-work law because the federal government already says that nobody has to pay union dues if they don't want to. Whether it's here, Indiana, or anywhere else, this legislation is just part of the right-wing agenda attacking labor and middle-class families."

But the fight is far from over. New Hampshire House Speaker Bill O'Brien (R) said after the November vote that the issue will be what he called "priority legislation" this year.

"There's a whole host of anti-labor bills on the docket for this session," Brackett said. "And right-to-work has come up 20 consecutive times — and for 20 years, we've beaten it back. Our victory in November was a good one, but we'll be back into the fray soon."

At the same time, activists in Michigan and other Midwest states will be watching Indiana and New Hampshire closely, as some say right-to-work legislation is an ever-present threat looming on the horizon.

"So far, several pieces of legislation have been introduced, including so-called right-to-work 'zones' that would enable cities and counties to adopt these anti-worker laws at the local level," said Lansing, Mich., Local 665 Business Representative Ray Michaels. "This would pit neighbor against neighbor in an economic race to the bottom."

Michaels said that with much of the legislature in Michigan being "blatantly anti-union," right-to-work is a real threat to the economy and all working people in the state. "It's divisive and a distraction from our efforts to improve the lives of the people of Michigan," he said. "We have real challenges here, and we need real solutions. This anti-worker, ideological assault is counterproductive. It creates no jobs. It creates no relief for the many families struggling in Michigan."

Ind. Governor, Legislature Try to Block Public Protests

Fighting increasingly bitter Indianapolis winter winds, thousands of pro-worker advocates gathered the morning of Jan. 4 outside the statehouse on the first day of the legislative session. Early that day, it was unclear how a portrait of democracy in action would develop. Gov. Daniels had issued an executive order mandating that only 3,000 people could be inside the statehouse at any given time — including the 1,700 people who work there. The governor's office insisted this was to maintain safety in the facility.

"But that's absurd — the building has been there since 1888 and there's never been a need for a rule like that before," said South Bend Local 153 Membership Development Director Troy Warner. He and other officers have been active against the right-to-work push, using member-to member contact to spread the message amongst working families in the Hoosier state. "There were times last year when we had nearly 5,000 people in that building peacefully protesting," he said.

Under public pressure, only hours before the session was to begin, Daniels rescinded the order temporarily — which sparked a wave of enthusiasm through the massive crowd waiting outside, who soon brought signs and banners into the statehouse for an afternoon of peaceful protest.

Local 153 Business Manager Mike Compton helped coordinate three busloads of attendees. But when activists got inside the statehouse, he said, they were greeted with an unwelcome sign.

"There were huge glass barriers put up inside the building to divide the main halls away from the lawmakers," Compton said. "To me, that sends a message that they're hiding behind closed doors to do whatever they want, regardless of what citizens think."

A contingent of Democrats also stayed away from the day's proceedings to deny the legislature a quorum to move forward on business regarding the right-to-work legislation.

IBEW Opposes GOP Member's Divisive Tactic

On Jan. 10, a Republican lawmaker offered an amendment to the bill allowing for the 15 building trades in the state — including the I— to be exempt from right-to-work.

Republican Sen. Brent Waltz said that he believed the building trades should be "carved out" because contractors are dependent on unions to expertly train apprentices who will man construction projects.

The head of the regional Carpenters union agreed. Joe Evans, president of Indiana/Kentucky Regional Council of Carpenters Local Union 1016, said that there is a significant difference between the ways the building trades and other unions operate.

"It's totally different how we do our job compared to a United Auto Workers plant," he said.

IBEW leaders countered. "We are fundamentally opposed to carving out any exemptions," said Gary and Hammond Local 697 Business Manager Ray Kasmark.

Kevin Cope, business manager for Muncie Local 855, sided with Kasmark, telling The Herald Bulletin that his local stands with the "brothers and sisters in the industrial trades."

"(The law) is going to hurt our friends and neighbors," said Cope.

Lessons for the Election

IBEW Political Department Director Brian Baker said that with the recent wave of activism to recall Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker and the defeat of the anti-worker bill known as "SB 5" in Ohio, 2012 will be another year where activists will need to be in full swing — especially ahead of what is looking to be a contentious election season.

"There's a huge groundswell at the grassroots level, and that's what the anti-worker lawmakers are nervous about," Baker said. "The actions by these corporate-backed, Tea Party-endorsed candidates are going to have repercussions."

IBEW International President Edwin D. Hill said that the recent events in Indiana, New Hampshire and elsewhere show with clarity the competing worldviews between those who value the contributions of working families and believe in shared prosperity, and those who believe that laws should protect a chosen few.

"This year we face a tough presidential election where jobs and the economy will be center stage," Hill said. "We're seeing the highest income inequality ever in the greatest nation in the world, and these anti-worker politicians and corporations just want to keep taking more and more. You have to wonder what kind of world they want us living in. Our values of hard work and decency are going to be tested harder than they have in a very long time. You can bet we're going to be active, mobilized and ready over the next nine months."

The right-to-work battle in Indiana continued beyond The Electrical Worker's press deadline. For more coverage, visit www.IBEW.org.

IBEW members push back in Indiana against an assault on workers in the form of right-to-work legislation.


Just the Facts
About Right-to-Work States

8 of the 12 states with the highest unemployment rates are right-to-work states.

6 of the 8 states that have the lowest wages are right-to-work states.

Wages in right-to-work states are 12 percent lower than those in non-right-to-work states.

Rates of uninsured are 24 percent higher in right-to-work states.

Rates of uninsured children are 39 percent higher in right-to-work states.

12 of the 14 highest wage states are not right-to-work states.

Source: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistic