The Right to Work… For Less

It is difficult to argue with the way the world should work in the Republican Party’s alternative universe. You don’t have to worry about protecting the environment, and eliminating food stamps will motivate the laziest among us to pursue a better life. You get to use catchy phrases like, “give a man a fish and he’ll eat for a day, teach a man to fish and he’ll eat forever,” “the only way to stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun,” and the latest revelation, “companies are people too … my friend.” How great would that be? Your loved ones never die because they are people taking the form of a business?

Unfortunately, this is not the world in which we live. We know that we need government regulations, social safety nets and other protections that help us organize our responsibilities to one another and advance our common interests.

The foremost example of this misperception is what led former Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan to say after the economic collapse in 2008, “I made a mistake in presuming that the self-interests of organizations, specifically banks and others, were such as that they were best capable of protecting their own shareholders and their equity.” In other words, admitting that the model of self-regulation is flat wrong and does not work in this world.

The Republican/Libertarian “model” of economics is like a model airplane — looks so bright and shiny, but has no chance of flying.

So back in the real world — not the model world — the movement to trade company’s rights for worker’s rights is in full, spring bloom, and comes with its own catchy phrase straight from the ancestors of the manipulative-master himself, Frank Luntz, the brilliant and legendary messaging guru for the conservative movement. The masterpiece is called “right to work.”

Right to work is a legislative concept being introduced at state and local levels of government that would prohibit “compulsory unionism,” where employees of a given company must pay dues to their respective union, which represents and protects their workplace rights and interests. The phrase “right to work” is like “pro life,” impossible to argue with because everyone is for “life.” It is the equivalent of “everything is awesome” legislation (brought to you by the fine people of LEGO).

However, as opponents of right-to-work legislation so aptly describe it: this is more like the “right to work for less.” All this legislation does is weaken the organizations that are designed to use collective bargaining power to protect and promote the interests of their workers. In fact, as this week’s feature story explains, not only are wages in right-to-work states inferior to those in other states, but so too is workplace safety — occupational fatalities are 34 percent higher in right-to-work states. This legislation literally kills people.

Consider this: Wisconsin’s new right-to-work legislation allows for the Green Bay Packers to opt out of the NFL Player’s Association, a union that all players and teams must join when entering the league. This means that the union will still represent Packer players, even though they are not paying for the protections, benefits and other services provided to them by the Player’s Association.

Nobody is forcing players into the NFL, just as nobody is forcing Ford employees to work at Ford. That said, if you do decide to make your career in the NFL, you should have to pay for the benefits and protections that you have a right to expect with your employment.

As for Kentucky, the only remaining non-right-to-work state in the South, the Commonwealth recently won Site Selection Magazine’s 2014 Governor’s Cup Award, recognizing the top state in the country for capital investment attraction. Favorable labor laws do not inhibit or deter economic investment or opportunity.

The frustrating part of this debate is that the opponents of right-to-work legislation are left arguing the philosophical merits of a movement that is based on nothing more than maximizing profits on the backs of workers. Ultimately — in the real world — this is a fundamental case of realizing who stands to benefit, and the money trail is very easy to follow. Corporations would not hand over millions of dollars to pro-business lobbying organizations to promote legislation that would empower the very employees they claim to be defending.

You want to do something for workers? Try a movement and slogan like: “Right to work … with rights.” •