Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Beating ‘Right to Work (For Less)’

Labor Victory (image by HarryStaab)
The wave of government attacks on unions that has been growing across the country has the ultimate goal of abolishing unions entirely. Unions drive up wages for workers, which is a good thing, but it pisses off bosses to no end. Unions are also major contributors to the Democratic Party, which pisses of Republicans (and a lot of bosses) to no end, too. One of the tactics being used to destroy unions is to enact “Right To Work” legislation, more aptly named “Right To (Work For Less”) because it has the tendency to drive down wages by making it harder for unions to organize and maintain membership and to collect dues from existing members.

In a remarkable victory for workers in 1978, the National Right-To-Work Committee’s Missouri initiative was defeated by a 3-2 margin. Missouri Republicans have been at it again, trying to put together new “Right to Work (For Less)” legislation last year. 12 other states are also threatening to pass similar anti-union and anti-worker legislation.

In a recent piece in Labor Notes, Jerry Tucker, one of the organizers who helped defeat Missouri’s 1978 attempt at Right to Work (For Less), discusses some of the lessons from that campaign. I’ve included just a few excerpts, with my commentary in italics:

“Missouri in 1978 looked like a good target for the “right-to-work” forces. An industrial union stronghold with many characteristics of a Southern state, a RTW victory there could have a domino effect. Missouri would put organized labor’s unity and power to the test. Initial polls showed RTW passing by a 2-1 majority, and even union members were 51 percent in favor. State labor officials favored a legal strategy, and had no plan to reach union members—much less the communities beyond labor. We had to turn that around.”

It is significant that RTW seemed initially to be a done deal. The mainstream union bosses today are much too quick to look at data like this and accept it as a fait accompli, rather than buckling down for the tough fight. The fact that so much of the public today seems to be buying the anti-union rhetoric and jumping onto the anti-public sector worker bandwagon is very similar to the fact that 51% of Missouri’s unionized workers initially supported RTW. When overwhelmed by propaganda from the bosses, it is sometimes difficult see the truth buried underneath.
“The United Labor Committee, a statewide body with representatives from the AFL-CIO, UAW, Teamsters, and Mine Workers, raised $2.5 million to run the campaign against right to work. Twice the committee requested donations from member unions equivalent to 50 cents per member. Some unions asked locals or internationals to cover the donation. Some, like the UAW, went directly to the membership—which had important benefits. Members were educated about the campaign and gained a personal stake once they reached into their own pockets.”

Similar fundraising efforts may need to be replicated today. However, with a much smaller percentage of the workforce currently unionized, this will be much less effective than in 1978. The face to face meetings with members was probably much more significant than the actual money collected as it has the potential to amplify the message each time a member learns the facts and gets inspired to be more active. One of the most efficient uses of limited union funds today is to train and mobilize large cadres of organizers who can go out and meet with workers face to face, including non-unionized workers, whose support is desperately needed in all fights for labor rights, wages and benefits.

Rank-and-file unionists were the mainstay of the campaign. In fact, some couldn’t seem to do enough, and at the outset thought their leaders weren’t doing enough. While the labor committee was still ramping up, members were acting on their own. They set up meetings, visited the merchants with whom they did business, painted signs on their cars, and worked the polls. . . New member organizing spiked upward for several years afterward.”

The last line here is important. Getting workers excited and motivated is key to winning a campaign. Keeping that energy going after the campaign has ended is always a challenge. People want to go back to their lives. They may feel burned out. They often believe that their activist work is done. Right now, there are so many attacks on workers that it is crucial to build up the excitement and mobilize workers to fight these attacks. The energy is certainly growing, especially in states where Republican governors have made explicit threats (e.g., Wisconsin, Ohio, Idaho, Indiana, Tennessee). These threats are still looming. There have not yet been any decisive victories for workers (except, perhaps in Illinois, where legislation to ban public sector workers from striking was withdrawn). So the struggles must continue.

What if we win? What happens next? Will we allow all that excitement and energy to wane and then wait for the next attacks? A much smarter strategy would be to start making long-term plans and looking at bigger, more impressive goals. The short-term strategy must obviously be to protect our rights to strike and collectively bargain, but it should also include protection of wages and benefit. No more one step forward and two steps back. Medium term goals must include recruiting more workers into unions and building union strength back up to its previous levels (or higher). Once we defeat the local anti-union initiatives, non-union workers will see the power and benefits of being in a union, while those who were active in the struggles will feel empowered and feel motivated to help in the organizing.

Medium-term goals should also include fighting for improvements in living standards. Each year the productivity of American workers increases, while profits soar, yet our living standards have steadily declined and the wealth gap has increased. We should demand higher wages, much higher, combined with higher taxes for the rich, not only to erase the budget deficits, but to turn them into surpluses that can be used to fund education, health and social services.

Long-term goals should include fighting for an end to poverty, and to wealth, as well as an end to bosses and to wage slavery itself. We should be organizing for shorter workdays and longer vacations and weekends. We should be fighting for universal health care, housing and food, an economy that prioritizes human needs, not bosses’ greed.

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