By Rick Woelfel
Differences of opinion between labor and management are certainly nothing new. It’s been nearly eight decades since the passage of the National Labor Relations Act (1935) which gave employees the right to bargain collectively.
The issue of exactly how much influence organized labor should have in the workplace has been a flashpoint ever since.
One issue that has remained particularly contentious is the idea of ‘Right to Work,’ so much so that the matter was addressed in the Labor-Management Relations Act, which became law in October of 1947.
More popularly known as the Taft-Hartley Labor Act, the measure was actually an amendment to the National Labor Relations Act. It was vetoed by President Truman before becoming law via Congressional override.
Taft-Hartley placed certain limitations on labor unions within the workplace under the umbrella of unfair labor practices. Among other things, the Act prohibited wildcat strikes as well as secondary boycotts; that is, unions involved in a dispute with an employer were prohibited from pressuring a neutral third party from doing business with that same employer.
The Act also outlawed the ‘closed shop.’ Unions were barred from entering into agreements with employers that mandated a company hire only union members for its workforce.
Companies were permitted to stipulate that workers were to join a union after being employed a certain period of time.
But the Act also stipulated that individual states could enact ‘Right to Work’ legislation that barred businesses from making mandatory union membership a condition of employment.
The phrase ‘Right to Work’ is more than a bit misleading; Taft Hartley does not guarantee employment to anyone. But it does allow individual states to prohibit union shops—mandatory union membership, within their borders.
Prior to Taft-Hartley employers and unions could require union membership as a condition of employment. A worker could lose their job if they left the union for any reason or failed to pay their union dues.
In the nearly seven decades since Taft-Hartley became law, 24 states have enacted Right to Work statutes that impact most private-sector workers (excluding the railway and airline industries). Most of those are in the South and Midwest, including Michigan, the epicenter of the U.S. auto industry, where a newly minted Right to Work law took effect last March.
There is an abundance of emotion on both sides of the debate and more than once the issue has ended up in court.
Recently the Michigan State AFL-CIO brought suit in U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan seeking to have the Right to Work provisions in that state thrown out on the grounds they violate the National Labor Relations Act.
Among other things, the law bars labor organizations from automatically deducting union dues from employees’ paychecks.
Proponents of Right to Work argue that union membership should be a matter of individual choice. They contend that a percentage of their union dues might be used to support organizations or individuals they oppose for political or religious reasons.
They also make the claim that a union shop drives up labor costs to the point where companies can no longer remain profitable
Opponents of Right to Work statutes cite a fundamental unfairness; it’s theoretically possible for workers in Right to Work jurisdictions to earn a union-negotiated salary, enjoy union-negotiated benefits, such as medical benefits, vacation and comp time, sick leave, etc. without contributing to the union that negotiated those benefits for them.
They reason it’s only fair and equitable for all workers who are employed under a collective bargaining agreement to contribute to the cost of negotiating and implementing that agreement.
It’s also worth noting that if workers are covered by a collective bargaining agreement, the law requires a union to represent a worker who is involved in a dispute with an employer (an unlawful termination for instance) whether that worker is a member of the union or not.
In short, it’s a matter of paying for services delivered. A doctor, lawyer, or for that matter, a trade association is not expected to provide services without compensation. Why should a labor union be expected to do the same thing?
The fiscal benefits of union membership are tangible. The Minnesota AFL-CIO, citing figures compiled in 2011-12, estimates that union workers earn 28 percent more than their non-union counterparts.
It also estimates that 78 percent of private-sector non-union workers have access to health benefits through their employer, compared to just 51 percent of non-union workers.
Just three percent of non-union workers are uninsured, compared to 14 percent of non-union workers
And keep in mind, these numbers include workers who are working under union contracts without being union members themselves.
In 2013 Pennsylvania, which does not have a right-to-work statute, was nevertheless was a flashpoint at the center of the issue. A bill was introduced in the state House which changes the manner in which public employees in the state pay their union dues.
Under current law the state automatically deducts union dues from state employees’ paychecks, along with state and Federal Social Security, etc.
If House Bill 1507 clears the Republican-controlled legislature and is signed into law by Republican Governor Tom Corbett, that practice would end and unions themselves would be responsible for collecting dues from their members and covering the expenses involved in that effort.
The bill brings to mind a similar measure that became law in Wisconsin two years ago and severely limited the collective bargaining rights of public employees in that state.
House Bill 1507 is a long way from getting through legislature and even if the governor eventually signs it, it is sure to be the subject of a court challenge. And the measure applies only to public employees; workers in the private sector are not affected.
But as the clock counts down to the midterm election and beyond there are storm clouds on the horizon.
It remains to be seen whether workers in Pennsylvania will be caught in that storm.