Friday, August 29, 2014

Labor Day rolls around in a Right to Work state

We are about to enjoy a nice Labor Day weekend, something that came about as a result of union activism and representation. Unions have done more for the working class than any other social movement, with gifts like the 40 hour week, overtime, and observed holidays, you know, like Labor Day.

I find this ironic since I live in a "Right To Work" state. A right to work state is one where I have a right to work any place I want to work so long as I have an agreement with the employer. The right to work includes the right to work in a union shop, with all union negotiated benefits, without having to pay for them if I don't want to pay for them.

Many states, such as Utah, have so-called "Right to Work" laws. Upon reading the laws for this state, I see that the state has declared activities such as boycotts, work stoppages and picketing to be illegal if they are used to compel anyone to violate the Right to Work law. Essentially, the government has intervened in the market in favor of employers to weaken bargaining rights of employees.

To put it differently, when men and women assemble to form a union and act in concert to negotiate for better working conditions or higher pay, any act they do in concert is illegal. Picketing is a peaceful activity to the extent that no violence is perpetrated and people are allowed to pass through, but the state declares picketing to be illegal. Boycotts are peaceful actions in and of themselves, but the state declares that to be illegal, too. Work stoppages are peaceful and workers are not expecting to get paid for that time off, and that is illegal as well. Yet, the government intervenes to prevent any of this from happening so that employers can enjoy a bargaining advantage over their employees.

In the same context, when a business joins an association, and the members of that business act in concert to limit the bargaining power of employees, that's OK. Conservatives will tell you that business are free to join together and act in concert in a free market. But they won't tell you that employees are not free, by law, to do the same.

The right to work laws are government intervention in the marketplace, but that is not how conservatives paint it. They want us to believe that the right to work laws create freedom in the marketplace, when the reality is, they are design to discourage collective bargaining. Collective bargaining concerns the right to contract for hire, but on a group level, rather than an individual level. Collective bargaining is a logical response to the efforts of those who own capital to marginalize the labor that makes capital productive. Did someone say, "Divide and conquer"?

Economist Dean Baker has thoroughly documented the hypocrisy of the conservative agenda. "The right gets to be portrayed as the champions of hard work and innovation, while progressives are seen as the champions of the slothful and incompetent. It should not be surprising who has been winning this game."

Until we reframe the debate to include how government intervenes in the marketplace on behalf of conservative interests, it will be very difficult for progressives to be heard and understood. This is what I will be considering the next time I vote.
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