“Right to work” laws undermine democracy

With recent developments in Michigan, these words from the 1930s are surprisingly relevant. They present a case that is too rarely made–so called “right to work laws” are not only harmful to living standards and union strength, they are also profoundly undemocratic. Interestingly, 70 years ago “right to work” had a different meaning. It was used the justify the demand of companies that state police and militia be used to break strikes and support scabs.–Talking Union.

by Alfred Baker Lewis

SWOCFaced with the rising demand for unionization among employees in order to get halfway decent conditions incur the autocratic power of the owners of industry, employers, and their spokesmen in the newspapers and elsewhere try to confuse the issue in the minds of uninformed people by making certain demands or changes in the law which sound logical but which are intended to hamstring the unions, destroy their effectiveness,and preserve the employers autocratic economic power.

Employers talk about the “tyranny of the closed shop” and the tyranny of the unions in requiring every worker in a union shop to pay dues in order to hold his job. They demand that strikes for the closed shop be made illegal and in particular want to make illegal the “check off” through which did union dues are deducted by the employer from the workers’ pay.

A closed shop is not tyranny. It amounts to an insistence by the union that every worker shall, by joining the union, have a right to vote for the union representative who takes up the cause of the workers in negotiating the cause of the workers in negotiating with the employer.  It is an insistence by the union that every worker shall have the right to vote on union policies and union agreements. Far from being tyranny it is an attempt to get the widest extension of the industrial democracy possible under capitalism.

The employers weep crocodile tears over a man who has to pay dues in order to get a job, a requirement insisted on by the union which negotiates a closed-shop agreement.

The reason why loyal union insist on payment of dues by all those employed in the shop is because it is only fair that all should share in the burdens when all share in the gains  won by the union. When the union obtains improved conditions higher wages or shorter hours for labor, all employees in the plant for the union agreement is made share in those gains. To win those gains costs money even where there is no strike. Organizers have to be sent out to explain the benefits that can be obtained from unionization. Information has to be collected on the ability of the industry to pay higher wages. Skilled bargainers, who are not employed by the company and are not under the company’s domination in fear of loss of their jobs have to be obtained. Even when a particular employer voluntarily pays as good wages as under union conditions and 99 cases out of 100 he provides conditions because he realizes that he has to equal the condition established by the union and other shops lose his best workers, The improvements which the employees enjoy have actually been won by the sacrifices made by union members working in other concerns. It is only just all receiving union benefits should share the cost of maintaining the union.

Union dues provide a protection to the workers. We pay taxes for protection. Taxes are protection against ignorance because they pay for the school department. They are protection against crime because they pay for a police department. They are protection against fire because they pay for a fire department. They are protection—at least to a small degree—against starvation because they pay for the public welfare relief expenditures. Similarly, the union dues are protection against wage cut speedups and arbitrary discharge, because they pay for the upkeep of the union. the union dues are essential to enable a union to have some money on hand to hire halls, lawyers, organizers or skilled negotiators, or to pay for those in need in case a strike is needed. To these needed funds all should contribute their share.

Alfred Baker Lewis was an activist in Norman Thomas’ Socialist Party and the NAACP, where he served as national treasurer for many years.. This is an excerpt from his 1937 pamphlet “Why the CIO” which was reprinted in The League for Industrial Democracy:A Documentary History edited by Bernard Johnpoll and Mark Yerburgh

A closed shop is a form of union security agreement under which the employer agrees to hire union members only, and employees must remain members of the union at all times in order to remain employed.


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2 Responses

  1. The so-called “closed shop” is illegal and has been since 1947. What is legal is the Union Shop. The difference is that the employer can hire anybody they want, but once that person is hired, they must join the union as a condition of continued employment.

    The so-called “open shop” or in right-to-work states, individual workers get to decide whether they will pay for the services that the union is required by law to provide for them. If that sounds nuts; you are right, it is.

    You cannot tell your insurance person that you expect coverage when your teenagers backs up into the neighbor’s mailbox, but you don;t want to pay the premiums. You cannot tell the city you want police protection, a professional fire service and plowed streets but you are unwilling to pay your taxes.

    A majority of workers voted or signed cards requesting the union to represent them. In a majority rule society, it is on fair to expect everyone to pull the weight.

  2. Thank you for posting my grandfather’s words. It is great to find out more about him and his fight for economic rights.

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