The primary purpose of unions is to gain better pay and working conditions for workers.
The primary purpose of so-called ‘right to work’ laws is to destroy unions so that big businesses can reduce wages.
Anyone who claims this debate is about rights, rather than economics, just doesn’t get it.
Our free enterprise system promotes hard work, excellence, investment, and innovation, to the long-term benefit of the people. But free enterprise also requires regulation to control its excesses, such as pollution, child labor, dangerous financial speculation—and income inequality.
Free enterprise is all about competition and negotiation. When a prospective employee negotiates with a big business, it’s usually David vs. Goliath. The only ‘power’ the job seeker has is to walk away. If an applicant asks for higher pay, the employer can say no and wait for the next person, who may be hungrier for the job.
During the Gilded Age of the late 1800s, before there were unions, the titans of industry made fabulous fortunes, while working people labored in dangerous conditions for paltry wages.
Workers realized that the only way they could negotiate successfully with employers was to organize, to join forces so that they would have enough bargaining power to go toe-to-toe with employers.
Some employers suppressed early unionization efforts with violence. Some workers responded in kind.
Faced with labor violence, and with the huge economic inequality of the time, Congress passed laws to allow workers to organize under the protection of the law. The law recognized a workplace as a community, and applied the principles of democracy to the unionization process. If a majority in a workplace wants to unionize, the union will be recognized as the representative of the whole work place community in negotiations with the employer.
Union representation is not free. It costs money to hire negotiators, and to retain lawyers to force employers to comply with the law. Our labor laws apply a second principle of democracy: if a majority of workers chooses a union, the costs of the union are born equally by the workers, whether they voted for the union or not.
Some argue that it is unfair to force them to pay union dues if they don’t support the union. But a worker who takes a job in a union shop pays the dues for being a part of that work community—just as a person who moves to a new town pays the local school tax even if he doesn’t want to pay for schools or the new fire engine.
The people who don’t want to pay union dues are simply freeloaders who want to enjoy the benefits of the union without paying for the cost.
Federal law gives states the option to ignore the principle that everyone in the community shares in the cost of the community. A so-called ‘right to work’ law in New Hampshire would change our labor law to make freeloading legal. This would force higher dues on the remaining workers, weakening and ultimately destroying the union.
Recent history proves the importance of unions. Over the past thirty years, union membership has dropped precipitously. The spread of ‘right to work’ laws to more states—and decisions by big business to relocate to right-to-work states—are big reasons for the decline of unions. During those same thirty years, the wages of workers in manufacturing and low-wage jobs have stagnated, while corporate profits have soared, and the rich have gotten much richer.
The sad part of this story is that the fight for a ‘right’ to freeload hurts the cause of workers everywhere. The ‘right to work’ movement is bankrolled by moneyed interests that want to destroy unions so big business can negotiate with workers one at a time, rather than with a unified workforce.
Governor Sununu says we need ‘right to work’ to make New Hampshire more attractive to new businesses. But the economic challenge we face is a lack of workers. New Hampshire has the lowest unemployment rate in the country, and employers complain about the jobs they can’t fill. Suppressing workers’ rights and wages is not the way to attract more workers.
Or course, many employers work well with unions. They don’t want a right-to-work law that will divide their workforce between those who contribute and those who don’t.
Not every workplace needs a union. If an employer treats its employees fairly, happy workers do not organize. But we need a fair process to allow workers to organize, to keep employers in line.
Laws that protect the right to organize bring better working conditions, higher pay for workers, less income inequality, and a stronger economy.