Workers’ Rights Must Be Strengthened Nationwide
A spate of legislation in several states over the past couple of years has been aimed at reversing gains made by working people and their labor unions since the years of the New Deal. Right to Work laws have spread from mainly southern states to include some in the industrial mid-west – among the latest being Indiana and now Michigan. Public employee unions in other states have seen collective bargaining rights severely curtailed as well. Such moves have exacerbated economic trends in this country such as wage stagnation among the vast majority of workers to the benefit of only a small percentage at the top.
Since the Reagan years, improvements in worker productivity have not translated into corresponding improvements in worker compensation. Profits often increase at the expense of workers as companies export jobs to take advantage of cheaper domestic or foreign labor. When workers lose the rights won through struggles culminating in the New Deal and afterwards, they are faced with increasing attempts by management to reduce benefits and wages. Taking away bargaining rights and effective union representation is inherent in the nature of Right to Work legislation. The only right workers are given in Right to Work laws is the right to work for less pay and/or benefits. This is borne out in employment statistics for states that enforce such laws and states that don’t have them.
In my opinion, allowing states to compete with each other to lower wages in this manner is not a good idea for the workers at all. It only serves the interests of employers who want to squeeze as much production out of their workers as possible while paying as little as possible. That is why there need to be national standards governing the way employers pay workers and the conditions under which workers must toil. It wasn’t that long ago that the 5 day/40 hour week with overtime compensation was instituted, child labor more strictly regulated and a minimum wage came into existence. Left to the devices of the management of the major corporations, employment conditions could easily revert to what existed prior to the New Deal or even worse, given their proclivity to eliminate jobs through use of new technology or export them to countries who treat their workers even worse.
Stronger national legislation needs to be enacted to set higher minimum standards of worker protections that must be met or exceeded in each state. One example of such a standard is the current federal minimum wage. As inadequate as it is now, individual states cannot authorize lower wages than those set at the national level, but may set a state level higher than that if they so desire. Many states now do have minimum wages higher than the federal minimum wage. Strengthening the minimum wage by raising it to a level at which a full-time employee would not be forced to live in poverty and indexing it for inflation would be a step in the right direction.
State Right to Work laws reducing or eliminating collective bargaining rights for any employees, public or private, should be abolished. One state should not be able to entice businesses from other states on the basis that their workers are at a disadvantage when it comes to negotiating pay and other conditions of employment. Workers should be able to negotiate these conditions, just as corporate executives are able to. Because they would be at a distinct disadvantage doing so as individuals, it helps them to approach the negotiations collectively, through the use of a union of their choosing. Since they have a collective stake in the outcome of such negotiations, they should each contribute to the costs incurred by the union to conduct them.
Right to Work laws often intentionally weaken the unions by taking away their ability to collect dues from members, allowing many to shirk their responsibility by gaining the benefits of negotiating without paying dues. That is no more fair to the other union members than excusing someone from paying taxes as duly legislated by the local, state or federal governments to pay for the services provided by those entities. These laws result in weaker unions which cannot represent their members as effectively, resulting in lower wages and other benefits than they would otherwise be able to obtain. The bottom line is that the needs of all parties in the employer/employee relationship must be adequately addressed and met, not just those of the employer. and the corporate bottom line. The ratio of pay of CEOs and other executives in this country to that of the bulk of the people working for the corporations at entry level positions is obscene when compared to that which prevails in other advanced economies.
Some of the standard arguments against raising living standards of workers in this manner include that it will increase unemployment and raise the prices of goods and services for consumers. We hear the arguments every time there is an attempt to raise the minimum wage. I have yet to see the unemployment rate skyrocket as a result of an increase in the minimum wage. Never happened. This is a common scare tactic meant to keep workers down that has proven to be as fallacious as the claim that lowering taxes on the wealthy would create more jobs for the rest of us and grow the economy.
As for the argument about raising prices for consumers – that may be true to a certain extent. In recent discussions about the cost to implement to health insurance requirements of the Affordable Care Act, the CEO of Papa John’s estimated that it would result in a rise in the cost of a pizza of about 11 cents. He went from there to threatening to lower the number of hours employees would work so they wouldn’t get the benefit. Besides the fact that companies have been using tactics like that to avoid providing benefits for many employees for as long as such benefits have been offered, the dire consequences of such policies as predicted by the naysayers never seem to materialize. Besides, I would not mind paying a little more for a pizza, a burger or anything else if that would mean that more people are being paid what they need to survive or maybe even thrive in our society. It is a matter of simple fairness. It results in the prices being a better representation of the true cost of producing the goods and/or services.
People deserve to be treated with dignity in all aspects of their lives, whether at work, school, in sickness or retirement. Too many in our society are cast aside, discarded or left without assistance when it is needed and could be easily provided with a minimal redistribution of resources from those who have more than enough to those who need more. Our government must learn to strike this balance far better than it has in recent decades. Increased inequality in income, wealth and opportunity for advancement within our society must be reversed to make it a better place for us all. If the lack of progress along these lines in recent sessions of Congress is an indication that our political system is failing in its responsibilities, perhaps new people with new and better ideas and willingness to bring them to fruition need to be brought in to remedy the situation. I think those in power must agree, because they are constantly warning us of the crises we face, without really doing much to resolve them.