Do Right-To-Work Laws Hurt Black Workers?

December 14, 2012  |  

A protester showing how much in wages she’ll lose to the right-to-work laws. AP Photo/Paul Sancya

The country has been consumed with the news that “right-to-work” legislation was signed into law in Michigan on Tuesday evening. “The pair of new laws, which make Michigan the 24th right-to-work state, make it harder for its workers to organize and to maintain power because workers covered by union contracts will no longer be required to pay dues,” explains NBC News. Less money means weakened unions. And it gives companies the power to hire non-union workers.

The number of union members has been steadily dropping in recent years, to 14.8 million people, or 11.8 percent of workers, NBC News reports. (The article blames the loss of auto jobs to globalization.) But even with their number diminished, unions still hold political sway. This law, and many Republican lawmakers, seek to diminish them further.

“Those who oppose unions say that’s a victory for businesses who want more flexibility in how they manage their work forces, and for workers who don’t want to be constrained by union rules or collective bargaining agreements. That, they say, will ultimately create more jobs and help the state’s economy,” NBC News continues.

The unions, of course, aren’t buying this, so they’re already plotting to reverse these laws or dump the politicians who support them out of office. Talking Points Memo lays out the options in further detail. The Atlantic is banking on union attempts to boot Republican governors from office.

“Many Republican governors in the industrial Rust Belt are aggressively challenging union power, and hoping to see the fruits of their own labor rewarded. For a Michigan governor to sign antilabor legislation and live to tell the tale would be truly historic, in the birthplace of America’s labor movement,” that website reports.

“These upcoming gubernatorial races will be a test for how much influence labor can still muster,” the article continues.

The Michigan Chronicle argues that right-to-work laws would actually benefit black workers.

“The fact is that, contrary to the “scare tactics” of union bosses, Right to Work Laws do not give employers the ability to fire employees ‘at will,’ making Black workers especially vulnerable to losing their jobs,” the outlet says. “A Right to Work Law empowers workers, giving them the option to choose whether or not to join unions without suffering backlash, such as employer or union retaliation. The law also means that workers may resign union membership, when they so choice, devoid of any consequence.”

The article argues that in neighboring states with right-to-work laws, per-capital income has grown significantly more than in Michigan. And in Detroit, the black population makes up 84 percent of the total population. Unemployment in the city is 17 percent, according to the article.

On the flip side, Slate magazine questions the numbers that are continuously pushed out by right-to-work supporters. The article quotes numbers from Fox News that puts the unemployment rate in right-to-work states at 6.9 percent vs. a national average of 7.9 percent vs. 7.6 percent in non-right-to-work states. Calling the numbers “impossible,” the site says that while the employment rate in right-to-work states might be a little higher, the cause hasn’t been established. And the article reiterates the message of the picture above and the Economic Policy Institute: workers in right-to-work states make $1,500 less annually than those in non-right-to-work states.

The same organization also says that black male union workers earn $2.60 more per hour than non-union black males, and women, $2.25 more per hour.

Workers across the country have been more actively protesting low wages and long hours in recent weeks. Walmart staffers raised their voices over schedules that had them in stores on Thanksgiving Day. And today there will be an international day of action. Port workers in Los Angeles went on strike. And fast-food workers in New York have been protesting wages — $7.25 per hour with a median annual income of $18,230, according to Daily Finance. Bureau of Labor Statistics numbers show that more older people — 28 and older, in general; 32 and older for women — are working these jobs. Some even have college credits under their belt. The headline on this Bloomberg story paints the picture: “McDonald’s $8.25 Man and $8.75 Million CEO Shows Pay Gap.” Tyree Johnson, who works at two McD’s restaurants and has been an employee of the company for 20 years, struggles to pay for his single-room occupancy home. The protesters were asking for $15 per hour.

“[S]ome protesters also hope to improve their bargaining power by gaining recognition for a new union, called the Fast Food Workers Committee, that would represent fast-food workers at a variety of restaurants,” writes Daily Finance. “[Organizer Jonathan] Westin claimed that last week’s strikes demonstrated to workers that they could strike without losing their jobs, and predicted that this would lead to increased employee involvement in future protests and build momentum for the movement.”

In other words, workers whose place on the corporate totem pole is low are finding strength in numbers and seek out the kind of support and cohesion that a single voice — like the one offered by a union — offers. If you read The Jungle by Upton Sinclair in high school, you’ll recall that many of the same issues were discussed when that book was published in 1906 — workers coming together to fight for fair pay and better working conditions. Would this lower revenues for these corporate giants and their executives? Sure (but they’d still be super-rich). Does that mean there might be fewer items on the dollar menu? Yep. But is it better for individuals and society as a whole when people make a living wage? Absolutely.

Part of the problem, The Daily Beast points out, are the unions themselves. They’ve failed to detail the modern-day significance of unions and the labor movement.

[Unions] drive up the cost of doing business, we hear, though unmentioned is that higher wages mean a stronger local economy. Unions are corrupt, we hear, though that’s a hard stone to cast for anyone living in a glass mansion built by the banking and investment industries, or with the ill-gotten gains from corporate insider trading. Even odder is to hear that argument from working-class people, who have bought into the notion that “right to work” actually has something to do with workplace freedom.

Now, as in the past, unions stand for workers who, on their own, couldn’t possibly bargain with the huge corporations that hold their livelihoods in their hands. The fight is on and neither side is backing down.

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