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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  • er5105

    Wages need to stay “responsibly” low and hours need to stay long. We need to drill it home that NO ONE should be able to make a great living without either 1.) a decent education or 2.)an innovative mind.

    Unions had their time. But now, they are outdated. Federal and state laws protect workers from mistreatment. The idea that a person can dislike their work conditions, and instead of exercising their right to find a new job, they just lobby a BUSINESS OWNER to change the way they operate is pure lunacy.

    I’m not saying “right to work” is pure gold (or that unions should be eliminated), but no one should be forced to join unions. Don’t be fooled into thinking that this is a “war on workers”. Nope. This is unions playing cry baby because they can’t force everyone to pay into their collection plate (money which is used to buy politicians who, then pass laws to give unions more power). Speaking of which, people always talk about corporations buying Washington DC? Do a little research on the biggest lobbies and political contributors in this nation. Actually educate yourselves about who really “buys” our politicians. The worst part is, with all the money they use to hijack the political system, the middle class is STILL neglected and public schools are STILL garbage. Let’s rethink unions people, because what’s going on right now isn’t working.

    • Starbright

      I agree with you. Unions have their good sides, but they definitely have their bad sides, just like a right-to-work state. I know a family that owns their own construction business in the South. The company received a call from New York for help with construction in NY. The company from the South asked the New York guy could they use their own workers or did they have to use the ones in NY. The NY guy told him that it doesn’t matter, as long as the union wage is paid. According to the the construction company, a dump truck driver in NY makes over $65 an hour, a painter and carpenter at $70+ an hour. That’s over $100,000 a year. I understand that NY and many other states have a very high cost of living, but one of the problems is that stuff cost too much bc of inflation mostly, and for terrible quality. I have a problem when someone barely out of high school makes this much, but there are people with master degrees and PhDs that make this much or even less. Like er5105 stated, a lot of unions are about lining their pockets with dues. They are not teaching that a decent education is needed to succeed and/or a strong work ethic with ambition. Now, some right-to-work states are just as bad bc some of them teach ‘the less educated you are, the more I want to hire you bc I don’t have to pay you a liveable wage” and other hiring discriminations they practice.

      • Mister007

        All union dues are is extortion because if you don’t pay you don’t work, now is that right. Why do they need 50 to a 100 dollars per month in dues when they do nothing for it. I take that back they give it to democrats to keep them in power.. i am an ex union man and now retired and I am 78 years old so I have seen a lot….

  • UmmYeahOK

    People kill me complaining about paying into unions. That $20 or $30 per pay period ensures at least 3X that in benefits. Unions built the middle class, period. With the swift eradcation of unions, the middle class is RAPIDLY shrinking. The right-wing noise machine has been very sucessful in demonizing unions to get workers to vote against their best economic interest. The slogan “Right to work” is extremely and INTENTIONALLY misleading. These right-to-work laws only help the employer to require overtime with no pay, no cost of living increases, no bonuses despite stellar appraisals, and fewer and more costly healtchare benefits. Workers’ rights are steadily being eroded right under your noses and you don’t even realize it. While the CEO is taking home fat bonuses, you haven’t gotten a raise in 3 years, if you do it amounts to the cost of a cheeseburger each month, your employer has made you “exempt” status to avoid paying you a lick of overtime, that under normal circumstances you’re rightfully entitled to.

    • er5105

      Unions did help strengthen the middle class, I will give you that. But that have out lived their time. Right to work gives people the right to be free from union rules. Unions are no longer necessary, federal laws protect workers from being mistreated, and your right to pursuit of happiness allows you to find a new job if the one you have doesn’t suit you. However, no one has a RIGHT to any job.

    • Charla

      If you want to pay the money that’s fine with me. Just don’t require me to pay it because I don’t want their “benefits.” State laws already cover most of the things you mentioned. Unions are just a way for people to work crappy and keep their jobs.

      • Mister007

        No truer words have been spoken than crappy workers doing as little as possible and protected by unions. There places where unions even want you to work slow so they have to hire more. I have proof for that also..

    • Mister007

      I have seen more businesses go under or leave because of unions, I know because it happened to my wife, brothers, friends and my self. They just priced them selves out of the picture. if you want proof I will gladly send it to you. There are paper mills, machine shops, farm equipment mfg and grocery stores (before Walmart) and three knitting mill all gone along with thousand of jobs. Thanks unions..

  • SMH

    As an individual who was apart of the school system in Tennessee, I thank God for unions, especially TEA. Having to pay a small fee into an organization is nothing compared to the security you gain from having a lawyer (and believe me I needed it) and having the support of others who are in the same situation. Dont be fooled, the right to work agenda is meant to take away the voice of the people. I decided to be apart of an organization that could speak on my behave and to negotiate benefits…I wish more people understood the good that unions provide instead of giving into the right conservative agenda…

    • UmmYeahOK

      They don’t hear you though. Workers won’t be satisfied until they are working for NOTHING. No benefits, no decent pay, no vacation, NOTHING. They seem happy to let corporations have it ALL.

  • Starbright

    I think right-to-work hurts black workers in certain parts of southern states, that are known for racism and prejudice. I am not a fan of unions bc I think that for the most part, a lot of workers, not all, are overpaid with very little education, versus people with college education making less than some with a high school diploma, but a lot of these southern states don’t pay you what you are worth in the first place, especially black workers. In certain parts of S. GA, many employers will hire someone in their family who is not the most qualified whatsoever than to hire a black employee who is qualified. It’s very obvious when you visit these businesses, especially the smaller ones.

    • chanela

      are you serious? what a pompous jerk you are for saying this. these people are not overpaid.don’t be mad because someone told you that a college degree is the only way to go!

      • Starbright

        First, keep the name calling to yourself. No one told me that a college degree is the only way to go, so quit assuming things. I chose to get a degree that can be used anywhere, not even this country, because with how much money that a lot of these unions are paying out, a lot of these states are going to go bankrupt. Do you know all union workers? I could have sworn that I said not all are overpaid. Secondly, I still agree that the more education that is received, the more you should be paid. We can agree to disagree, but keep the name calling to yourself.

  • Charla

    My only problem with unions is being required to pay into them. I had a state job and was required to pay $20 a pay check. I really didn’t see any success on the union’s part while I worked there. They did manage to get us a bonus of $400 BUT the payout was spread out over a whole year AND it was taxed. So that was about $5 a pay. Thanks union…