Republican members of the Indiana House of Representatives have just introduced a bill deceptively captioned “Employee’s right to work.” The title misrepresents the bill’s true intent which is to do just the opposite. The bill’s real purpose is to stop working people from organizing themselves in unions so they can truly exercise their right to work.
The House bill no. 1043 was introduced January 5, 2011 by Representatives Torr, Culver, Kubacki, and Turner; received first reading; and was referred to the Committee on Employment, Labor, and Pensions. Interestingly, when asked December 26, 2010 by an Indianapolis Star reporter about the Indiana Chamber of Commerce’s drive to put “right-to-work” on the legislative agenda, Republican Governor Mitch Daniels said, “I don’t think it should be a subject of debate and vote in this particular General Assembly.” In the Governor’s 2011 State of the State address the words “right-to-work” were unmentioned.
In summary, the right-to-work bill would make “it a Class A misdemeanor for an employer to require an individual to: (1) become or remain a member of a labor organization; (2) pay dues, fees, or other charges to a labor organization; or (3) pay to a charity or another third party an amount that represents dues, fees, or other charges required of members of a labor organization; as a condition of employment or continuation of employment. Establishes a separate private right of action for violations or threatened violations.”
Right-to-work laws such as that proposed for Indiana have been around since passage in 1947 of the Taft-Hartley Act over President Truman’s veto. There currently are such laws in twenty-two states, mostly in the South and West.
Pros and Cons
Proponents of right-to-work legislation find their strongest argument in the Constitutional guarantee of freedom of association and argue that laws to the contrary are unconstitutional and therefore illegal. Another objection is that a portion of union dues goes to political causes workers may not personally support. Arguments based on the common law principle of the ownership of private property cut both ways: individual employees should not be compelled to join and pay dues to a union, and right-to-work laws interfere with the way business does business.
Right-to-work laws come with great costs, economic and social, to workers and the general public. Union members point out that non-union members are “free riders” because they benefit from contracts negotiated by the union, but bear none of the cost. Because all employees benefit from the fruits of collectively bargained labor agreements, whether union members or not, there is less incentive to join the union. Wages in right-to-work states are significantly lower and worker’s health and safety standards more lax. Workplace fatalities are highest in right-to-work states.
A Tough Fight Ahead
There are many powerful and well-funded organizations pushing to make Indiana the twenty-third right-to-work state. It could take all the forces of labor and the allies it can call upon to stop it.
Some of the supporters of “right-to-work” are well known: the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the National Association of Manufacturers. Others have purposefully confusing yet appealing names just to fool the public about their real purposes. Among these shadow groups are the Coalition for a Democratic Workplace and the Employee Freedom Action Committee.
How should those who see the dangers of right-to-work legislation make their opposition felt?
Letters to the editor are helpful. Letters, e-mails, phone calls, and other forms of electronics to legislators will be more effective. What will be most effective is a coalition of labor and progressive forces. In Indiana, Jobs with Justice, working with the AFL-CIO, is taking on that leadership.
Wes Culver, one of the sponsors of this year’s right-to-work bill, co-authored a similar bill in 2008, but it never made it to the floor for a vote. A story in the Terre Haute Tribune-Star tells why. “There was strong public opposition from Democrats in both the House and Senate, as well as reluctance from some Republican leaders to push for legislation that was predicted for defeat in the then-Democrat-dominated House.”
This year Republicans control both chambers of the General Assembly as well as the Governor’s office. Perhaps the best thing the Democrats have going for them is that the Governor doesn’t want to invest much time on “right-to-work” this year. Next year, in his final year in office, the Governor might want to take up the issue and try to make passage of “right-to-work” a signature piece to his administration.