Tuesday, June 30, 2015

"Right to work" Reflections

I woke up this morning thinking about "right to work" laws. My earliest memory hearing the term "right to work" was when I was about twelve or thirteen. My father mentioned it in conversation with my mother soon after we had moved from Kentucky to Georgia. I had no idea what it meant but it sounded like a good thing. After all, any "right" must be a good right -- cuz when you don't have a right to do something that can't be a good thing. And everybody needs a right to earn a living.

Only later did I learn that it is about unions and union-busting -- and "right to work" actually means "right to get fired" if you think being in a union is a good thing. It's one of the tools in the union-busting collection.

My dad was a tight-fisted guy. He put a price tag on everything. And anything that cost money could always be got for less if you shopped hard enough or bargained forcefully enough. I think it was his experience in the car business that made him that way. The automobile business, after all, is the modern version of horse trading. And horse trading is synonymous with wheeling and dealing. (Get that? "Wheeling?")

Regarding unions, the idea of bargaining with big-shot bosses appealed to my dad. But he knew that union big shots are usually compensated (or were) as well as those bosses, and the only way they got paid was by collecting dues from union members. And this is where "right to work" comes into play. He liked the idea of bargaining for better working conditions and more pay, but the idea of paying some big union organization a bunch of money was a sticking point. It was like tithing at church. Everybody knew you're supposed to do it, but when the preacher sounds like a broken record always talking about it, it's time to look around to find another preacher (or another church).

Union-organized workplaces are "union shops" and if you work in one your wages have a deduction for union dues and you will be a member of that union. That's the difference between a union shop and a non-union shop. Written rules spell out the rights and responsibilities of workers and the company and any problems are handled through the union, not the person (or persons) involved.

"Right to work" laws make union shops impossible by allowing employees to opt out of union membership (and dues) and continue to keep their job. In short, non-union employees enjoy union benefits without paying for them, What a deal! But that is also why companies and bosses love them. Right to work laws cripple unions.

This is why my dad was not a union man. He didn't feel the need to have anyone speaking for him. Over time I learned to appreciate him as a one-man union. During a career of hard work lasting thirty-five or forty years he only had to tell a boss where to get off three or four times, but when he did, they always listened. He had a way of letting you know -- in a nice way, of course -- that you were about to cross a line he could not tolerate. And you didn't want to find out what would happen if you did. In his work environment he had the respect that only comes to those who are unquestionably good at their job. He was an automatic transmission specialist. What he did every day was work that few people could do. Consequently he was paid well, was never discharged and only had three employers in his entire working life -- even though the dealerships where he worked may have changed ownership a dozen times or more.

Back to "right to work." My dad, like most of his generation growing up in the shadow of the Great Depression, was simply too tight-fisted for his own good. Living and growing up at the edge of poverty shapes one's attitude about money. Those who are careful can live from check to check, and over time they might even save a little for a rainy day. After a few years it becomes a lifestyle. You learn to "do without." If you have enough to eat, are blessed with good health and always have a job -- what more could anyone want? And that is the razor's edge on which most of the working poor live.

One feature of union contracts links the minimum wage of members with the official minimum wages, state or federal, wherever the union operates. Increases in the minimum wage automatically trigger comparable increases in union wages. Otherwise, what's the value of union membership? This is the sticking point for most opposition to increasing the minimum wage -- it increases wages up the scale, driving up "labor costs" which is never, ever good for profits.

It's no accident, then, that "right to work" states have the lowest wages which is the definition of poverty. Wages are subject to the same laws of supply and demand as prices. And if there is no legal safety net for minimum wages, periods of unemployment drive the minimum downward in a feedback loop that only stops when working becomes more costly than being unemployed.

This, in short, is why Bernie Sanders' talking points are receiving such a widespread good response from ordinary people. At some level they recognize that his easy to understand remarks about wealth and wages perfectly describe the American work and business landscape. Listen to what he says and it's all correct. Unfortunately he will not make it into the finals because he doesn't have the backing of seriously big money. At this point in the cycle, most people are not even paying attention. I have spoken with several people who have never heard of Bernie Sanders and probably never will. I could inform them (which I do, of course) but that's just John rattling on about something in the news. He's always jabbering about something. So without an avalanche of advertisements (How do you say "Super Bowl" or "blockbuster movie" or "reality TV" or "March madness"?) there is no way he will be among the finalists.

But Bernie is leaving his mark. He's raising the consciousness of lots of people. He's not as eccentric as Ross Perot and he sure doesn't have that much money. But hopefully as the season progresses, his message (and that of the unions) will reach enough people to pressure their elected representatives to do the right thing and increase minimum wages.

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