Rights get lost in ‘right to work’
By Bob Peterson Dec. 18, 2010 Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
Wisconsin desperately needs family-supporting jobs. Yet the Republicans are using their newfound majority to lose jobs, ask working people to do with less and attack organized labor.
Even though he has yet to take office, Governor-elect Scott Walker has managed to lose thousands of jobs by refusing $810 million in federal money for high-speed rail – including the loss of a major manufacturing firm.
And now Republican Rep. Robin Vos of Rochester is promoting misnamed right-to-work legislation. Such anti-democratic laws are nothing more than a cover for pro-corporate interests who know that weak unions and low wages can build ever-higher profits. Rather than build prosperity, they will undermine our state’s progressive tradition and quality of life.
This country has a long history with such anti-union laws. Most states with these measures are in the West or the South, such as Alabama, Arkansas, Tennessee, Louisiana, Mississippi and Texas, and have lower wages and a poorer quality of life.
A better name for Vos’ proposal would be “race to the bottom.” Here’s why.
• So-called right-to-work states have lower wages.
Good wages and benefits are key to quality of life – both to support families and to provide a reliable tax base for education, infrastructure and public services. Yet the annual median income in right-to-work states is $6,185 less than in other states, according to 2009 U.S. Census Bureau data.
What’s more, these anti-union states tend to have higher poverty rates, less access to health care and lower-performing schools. In the Annie E. Casey Foundation’s well-respected “Kids Count” survey, the three worst states for children are in right-to-work states and the three best all allow workers to form strong unions.
Would you rather have your child go to the University of Wisconsin or the University of Mississippi? Would you prefer to raise a family in Mississippi, where the 2009 child poverty rate was 31%, or in Wisconsin, where it was 16.7%?
• Strong unions build a strong middle class.
During the New Deal, federal laws not only permitted but encouraged collective bargaining. After World War II, such policies built a foundation for shared prosperity and a thriving middle class. With the rise of deregulation and attacks on unionization in recent decades, income inequality has skyrocketed as the rich have grown richer, the poor poorer, and the middle class has shrunk.
As The New York Times editorialized Dec. 14, “the drive for more jobs must coincide with efforts to preserve and improve the policies, programs and institutions that have fostered shared prosperity and broad opportunity – Social Security, Medicare, public schools, progressive taxation, unions, affirmative action, regulation of financial markets and enforcement of labor laws.”
• So-called right-to-work laws undermine workplace democracy and foster a freeloader mentality.
Right-to-work laws promote freeloading and are a backhanded way of de-funding unions. The union, by law, negotiates wages and benefits that all workers receive whether or not they are union members. The union, by law, represents workers in disputes that arise – whether or not they are a union member. Under current Wisconsin law, all represented employees share in the cost of union representation. Vos’ scheme would allow workers to escape paying their fair share while still receiving all benefits.
That’s not the way democracy works. Contributing to the common good is an essential component of democracy.
Imagine if Vos’ freeloader scheme existed throughout society. People could refuse to pay taxes and still receive a public education, drive on our freeways and receive police and fire protection.
As we dream of a better future for our children, we should heed the words of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., assassinated during his campaign supporting striking sanitation workers in Memphis.
“In our glorious fight for civil rights, we must guard against being fooled by false slogans, as right to work,” King warned. “It provides no rights and no works. Its purpose is to destroy labor unions and the freedom of collective bargaining. . . . We demand that this fraud be stopped.”
This country is in the grip of the worst recession since the 1930s – a recession sparked by Wall Street greed and deregulation. Instead of attacking such problems, Walker and Vos are blaming public- and private-sector unions for our economic woes.
It’s essential to say “no” to Vos’ fraud and demand the Republicans deliver on campaign promises to create jobs.
Bob Peterson is a member of the executive board of the Milwaukee Teachers Education Association, co-editor of the book “Transforming Teacher Unions” and a fifth-grade teacher at La Escuela Fratney.