Right to work legislation threatens workers

“In our glorious fight for civil rights, we must guard against being fooled by false slogans, such as ‘right to work.’ It is a law to rob us of our civil rights and job rights. Its purpose is to destroy labor unions and the freedom of collective bargaining by which unions have improved wages and working conditions of everyone…Wherever these laws have been passed, wages are lower, job opportunities are fewer and there are no civil rights. We do not intend to let them do this to us. We demand this fraud be stopped. Our weapon is our vote.”
—Martin Luther King, speaking about right-to-work laws in 1961

A ballot initiative that threatens the ability of workers to collectively bargain is gathering support. The Public Employee Choice Act  would ban unions and employers from entering into union-security agreements.  If passed, this initiative would make Oregon the nation’s 25th so-called “right-to-work” state.

The initiative is currently being challenged on issues of language used in the title and summary.  The legislation will reach the voters as Initiative Petition #9 (IP9).  Once released, proponents will have until July 2014 to gather the required 87,000 signatures. If these signatures are verified, it will appear on Oregon’s November 4th, 2014 ballot.

The initiative is being promoted by The Cascade Policy Institute, a  conservative think tank with ties to the corporate-funded American Legislative Exchange Council.

“There’s national money to be had, and there are large donors in the state that definitely want to move forward,” said Jill Gibson Odell, the Portland attorney who is sponsoring the initiative. Conservative businessman Loren Parks has already donated $6,000 to the cause.

Right to work laws affect the collective bargaining process.  Through collective bargaining, employers and unions meet to negotiate a contract covering the terms and conditions of employment,  Things like wages, work hours, conditions, benefits and other issues. As part of the contract, many employers and unions agree to a “Union Security” clause which allows unions to share their costs with members through union dues.  Right to work laws prohibit employers and employees from negotiating that security clause.

As a result, right to work laws allow workers to pay nothing and still receive the benefits of a negotiated contract. Such laws force unions to allocate resources and time in an unsustainable manner.  The ultimate impact is a weakening of unions ability to bargain and affects the wages and working conditions of both union and non-union workers.

“So-called right-to-work laws have nothing to do with anyone being forced to be a member of a union or to support political causes he or she disagrees with.” explains Gordon Lafer, an associate professor with Labor Education and Research Center at the University of Oregon. “It is already the law that no one in Oregon can be forced to be a member of a union or be forced to contribute even a single cent to politicians or political causes he or she opposes.”

“Right-to-work laws tell people that they can get all the benefits and services of a union contract, but that paying their share of the costs that make that contract possible is optional.” explains Lafer. “In this situation, many people choose not to pay dues, not because they’re anti-union but because times are tight.”

Studies show that workers who belong to unions receive better wages, benefits and working conditions than non-union workers and right to work laws undermine these gains.  According to data compiled by the NEA and University of Maine, right to work states have higher rates of poverty and lower standards of living that worker-friendly states.  Median annual pay is 14 percent higher in free bargaining states and the rate of workplace deaths is more than half that of right to work states.