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February 2016

2016 Set to be a Pivotal Year in
Right-To-Work Battle
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Right-to-work backers are eyeing 2016 as a critical year in their campaign to weaken the American trade union movement, and labor leaders across the country are gearing up for the fight.

From the Supreme Court to state legislatures — even down to county boards of commissioners — anti-labor special interests are seeking to make right-to-work the law of the land, undercutting unions and weakening the voice of hard-working middle class Americans.

"This right-to-work push isn't about workers' rights," said IBEW International President Lonnie R. Stephenson. "It's about money, plain and simple. We've all seen more and more profits going to CEOs and people at the top while working people are being squeezed, and right-to-work only exists to widen that gap."

For now, there are 25 states that have enacted right-to-work laws, mostly in the 1940s and 1950s, but Indiana and Michigan in 2012 and Wisconsin just last year have brought supporters within just one state of the majority, a psychological barrier that could give the right-to-work movement a momentum boost in the coming years.

Currently, legislators in West Virginia, Missouri, Kentucky, Ohio and New Mexico are considering right-to-work laws, and local officials in Kentucky and Illinois are testing whether or not the rules can be implemented on a county-by-county basis. In Virginia, already a right-to-work state, some Republicans are pushing even further, attempting to enshrine the anti-union practices in the state's constitution and making repeal virtually impossible.

Right-To-Work, Wrong for Working People

Invented in the 1940s, the name "right-to-work" was little more than a marketing trick.

In any workplace, an employee has freedom to choose whether to join a union. But for non-members who work within a union-represented collective bargaining unit, an "agency fee" is typically assessed that covers the costs of bargaining and grievance adjudication (lawyers, researchers, negotiators, etc). The agency fee omits costs for the political activities of the union, which are included in normal membership dues. Because the union is obligated to represent all workers in a unit, the Supreme Court held in 1988 that representation comes with a cost and that non-members can be required to pay their fair share.

In right-to-work states, employees can opt out of agency fees as well and still remain represented by the union, creating an economic drain, or a "free-rider" problem. Free-riders weaken unions and in some cases create economic disincentives for union organizing in the first place. In Michigan alone, union membership fell nearly 8 percent in just the first year of right-to-work.

Weaker unions, of course, bring weaker workplace protections, weaker worker compensation, and even weaker communities with them. Statistics show working people in the 25 right-to-work states make $5,971 less than workers in free bargaining states when all other factors are removed. That works out to a 12.2 percent pay cut whether you're a union member or not.

Compounding the inequality, people in right-to-work states are 31 percent more likely to lack even basic health insurance, 13 percent more likely to live in poverty, and right-to-work states spend 31 percent less per student on public education. In fact, 19 of the 20 states that spend the least amount per student are right-to-work.

"It's easy to assume that these laws only affect union members or union workplaces," Stephenson said, "but the truth is, strong unions advocating on behalf of workers have ripple effects that raise the standard of living for an entire state."

Higher wages lead to higher state revenues, which allow increased spending on things like education and infrastructure. That's even before accounting for the advocacy trade unions have always carried out on behalf of working people and the middle class, which have played key roles in everything from civil rights to women's suffrage to the creation of basic workplace safety standards.

A Complicated Battlefield

Backers of right-to-work lost a key legislative fight last September when Missouri legislators failed to override a veto from Gov. Jay Nixon. But Republicans in the state house are trying again. During the pre-filing period at the end of 2015, at least five bills pertaining to right-to-work were submitted for consideration in the 2016 session, and another is expected that would put the issue up for a statewide referendum.

"These guys have put right-to-work up for a vote nearly every year for as long as I can remember," said Rudy Chavez, president of Kansas City, Mo., Local 124 and IBEW political coordinator for the state. "We beat them back on the veto override last year, but they're persistent."

One company, Tamko Building Products in Joplin, Mo., just put $1 million into a fund to attack the legislators who sided with labor, and that's only the start of the money that will flood into the state on behalf of big business this year, Chavez says.

It's much the same story in West Virginia, Ohio, New Mexico and Kentucky, where anti-union legislators are readying bills with varying degrees of support. In West Virginia, Democratic Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin would likely veto a right-to-work bill, but Republican majorities in both the House and the Senate believe they have the votes to override him. In Kentucky, newly-elected Gov. Matt Bevin made right-to-work a key issue of his campaign, but faces a slim Democratic majority in the state House, likely preventing its passage for now.

And in Ohio, where union membership tops the national average, Republicans expect to be able to push right-to-work through both chambers, but Republican Gov. John Kasich, who is running for president, has said he would rather not have the distraction at the moment. Despite Ohio voters rejecting an anti-labor measure in 2011, it is unlikely Kasich would oppose the bill if it landed on his desk.

Ohio's House Minority Leader Fred Strahorn told reporters late last year, "I'm really disappointed this kind of thing keeps coming back," pledging Democrats would vehemently oppose the current effort. "So-called right-to-work legislation should be called 'right-to-work-for-less,'" he said, "because it leads to lower wages, reduced benefits and a less safe workplace."

Still, the wealthy coalition of anti-labor interests pouring money into right-to-work campaigns appears to have grown impatient with the mixed success and glacial nature of the legislative process. Over the last several years these groups, notably Americans for Prosperity, the Center for Individual Rights and the American Legislative Exchange Council, have undertaken a multi-pronged attack to reach their desired goals.

Republican legislators in Virginia, for example, are almost certain to add a constitutional amendment to the state's 2016 ballot in November, essentially guaranteeing right-to-work's status even if Democrats eventually capture the statehouse in Richmond. Never mind the fact, said Fourth District International Representative Neil Gray, that right-to-work has been law in the state for nearly 70 years. "It's a shot at labor, and it's an unnecessary one," he said. "They see the slightest awakening in the state's labor movement, and they're determined to knock it down."

In Kentucky and Illinois, these groups have encouraged individual counties to enact right-to-work laws at the local level in an attempt to circumvent the state processes. That practice is under review by a federal court in Kentucky with a decision expected soon, and a ruling against unions could open the floodgates to more counties implementing right-to-work ordinances. A bill already filed in Missouri would allow the same thing there if the court OKs it.

"For now, we're just waiting on the judge," said Gene Holthouser, political director for Louisville, Ky., Local 369, which is a party to the lawsuit. "We're hopeful that the ruling will go our way, but even if it does, we'll have another fight on our hands next year to hang onto the state House. These guys aren't just going to give up. They're determined to get right-to-work passed one way or another and we're doing our best to stay a step ahead."

Also waiting on a judge — or nine of them to be precise — are public sector unions, who are facing yet another front in the right-to-work battle, this one in the form of the Supreme Court case Friedrichs vs. California Teachers' Association. As we wrote last month ("The Right Asks the High Court to Curb Unions," Electrical Worker, January 2016), the anti-union plaintiffs argued before the court that all government employees, from schoolteachers to police officers to public utility linemen, should be subject to federal right-to-work standards. A ruling against labor could affect millions of public employees, including tens of thousands within the IBEW.

A Long Fight Ahead

With a presidential election looming in November and primary contests dominating the news, 2016 promises to be a year when the public is paying attention to important issues like right-to-work. In states like Missouri, Kentucky, West Virginia, Ohio and Virginia, voters will have the chance to elect candidates who are champions for ordinary working Americans and the middle class.

The billionaire industrialists Charles and David Koch, who were behind the most recent right-to-work effort in Missouri and the Friedrichs Supreme Court case, have pledged to spend nearly $900 million to elect pro-business, anti-union politicians at every level of government in the upcoming cycle, and they aren't the only ones.

Conservative casino mogul Sheldon Adelson, who spent more than $150 million in 2012, is expected to spend even more in 2016. Worth nearly $30 billion, Adelson announced after the last election that he was turning his attention to the right-to-work fight in the states and that he intended to "double down" on his contributions to curb unions in the coming years.

"The bottom line," said Stephenson, "is that we've got our work cut out for us when it comes to right-to-work in 2016. Our opponents are well-funded and determined and they think their money can drown out our voices.

"It's not enough that we're right or that we're the ones sticking up for the working men and women of this country," he said. "We've got to do everything in our power to make sure we preserve the fair wages and workplace safety that come with a union card."


Missouri labor activists protest during the successful fight against right-to-work in 2015.

Photo courtesy The Labor Tribune.