The so-called "Right to Work" (RTW) constitutional amendment pushed by Republicans is anything but a right to work.
In 1961, Dr. Martin Luther King described the purpose of "Right to Work" laws as efforts "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." Dr. King called "Right to Work," a "false slogan" and a "fraud."
King recognized that unions play a critical role; they have provided better public health and safety standards and have worked to make the economy work for everyone.
In fact, on the day when Dr. King was assassinated in 1968, he was in Memphis supporting a sanitation workers' strike. To him, unions were essential to the rights and dignity of working people.
Fifty years later, we are still fighting the same battle, this time with a Republican proposal to amend the Minnesota Constitution with the so-called "Right to Work." Some things haven't changed, and RTW is as fundamentally dishonest today as it was then. Anyone who is struggling to find a job would love to have a right to work. But this constitutional amendment has nothing to do with that.
As in the past, this legislation is simply a proposal to allow workers who benefit from collective bargaining, arbitration, and other benefits to refuse to pay for the services they receive from the union. If this were accurately portrayed, the public would overwhelmingly reject such a scheme.
That's why they use deceptive language. Their ballot question would ask voters whether to amend the constitution to guarantee people the "freedom to decide to join or not join a labor union, and to pay or not pay dues to a labor union." Workers already have that choice. Under federal and state law, if employees vote to organize a union, individual workers cannot be required to join or pay dues; they can only be required to pay for the representation provided by the union. RTW, by removing the requirement that workers pay for those services, means few unions could survive.
This RTW amendment is being pushed for the very reasons that Dr. King identified: to weaken unions and bring down wages and benefits. And the impact is dramatic; the average family income in RTW states is almost $10,000/year lower than in Minnesota.
Our economy is already stacked against workers. Many cannot find work, and many of those who are working do not earn enough. More than three in ten Minnesotans are struggling to meet basic needs. Some workers cannot afford housing and go from their jobs to a homeless shelter at night. Passing the RTW proposal would make the situation much worse.
Just as importantly, lives of workers are at greater risk under RTW. Unions have long led the fight for worker safety laws and enforcement. During the 2011 legislative session, I remember a hearing where several firefighters sat in full protective gear -- one even in a hazmat suit -- in an already overheated capitol hearing room, to persuade lawmakers to provide sufficient training for firefighters.
Unions have also been instrumental in negotiating with employers to provide safety equipment at construction sites; they fight for adequate staffing levels for nurses in hospitals and for protective gear for police and firefighters.
This push for worker safety makes a huge difference. Workers in states with RTW laws are over 50% more likely to die in workplace incidents than workers in non-RTW states like Minnesota.
Fortunately, the RTW proposal is struggling in the legislature. The Senate Republicans pulled the bill out of the committee it was assigned to, apparently because they didn't have enough votes to pass it there. In the Senate Judiciary Committee hearing, one Republican spoke in favor of the proposal but voted against it, and another spoke against the proposal, then voted for it. They are struggling; we can defeat this.
Hundreds of workers packed the hallways of the capitol outside of the hearing room to express strong opposition to a bill that would take away their rights. They understand that the proposal has nothing to do with any right to work. To them, RTW means "rob the workers".
It's time to move beyond this fraudulent legislation. Let's talk about a true right to work: Everyone who wants to work should have a right to a job – a job that pays a living wage.
There are so many people eager to work, and so many tasks that need doing in our society. Yet our society has failed to connect the workers with the work that needs to be done.
We could start by taking unemployed construction workers and hiring them to rebuild our crumbling infrastructure – making schools and all public buildings energy efficient, addressing the enormous backlog of deferred maintenance of public housing and buildings at our colleges and universities.
We could hire teachers to expand early childhood programs, which provide great savings over the long run, and employ young adults to intervene with at-risk teens.
It is time to stop attacking workers and start attacking unemployment. Defeating RTW would be a great start.