So much for helping the working class
Unions in the USA are bracing themselves for a major attack by Republicans, who are intending to introduce a national ‘right-to-work’ law covering the entire country.
This time it seems the Republican Party seem intent on delivering a knock out blow to US unions.
Right-to-work laws give US workers the right not to pay union subscriptions – but to enjoy the benefits of trade union membership and collective bargaining.
Under US labour law, when a union wins a union ‘election’ at work their workplace must represent all employees in the bargaining unit, even those who have voted against the union.
Union representation is of course expensive and costs money, so US unions prefer to secure contracts that require all the workers in the bargaining unit to support the union financially.
Right-to-work laws make such arrangements illegal. The laws are a legalised free riders’ charter.
Attacks on unions using right-to-work laws are nothing new in the USA – twenty-seven states are now right-to-work, with Indiana, Michigan, Wisconsin, West Virginia and Kentucky joining the ranks over the past five years and Missouri and New Hampshire expected to follow.
Democrat-run states with higher union density on the West and East coasts are not likely to pass their own right-to-work laws. But with the passage of a national right-to-work bill it would become the law of the land in all states, regardless of their own statutes.
With the Republicans’ controlling both the Congress and the White House it is going to be difficult for unions to push the laws back.
A Democratic filibuster is currently the only clear path to stop a federal right-to-work law. Donald Trump portrayed himself as the worker’s friend during his campaign with many blue collar workers backing him. A year ago he was extolling the virtues of ‘right to work’. He said:
“It is better for the people. You are not paying the big fees to the unions.”
But even if Democrats can push back these proposals in Congress, right-to-work laws could be driven through by the US Supreme Court.
Unions faced a major threat last year in the case known as ‘Friedrichs’ when a group of right-wing school teachers in California argued that workers in public sector unions should not be required to pay any union fees. The case ended with a split decision following the death of Justice Antonin Scalia.
A ruling against unions would effectively make the entire public sector right-to-work throughout the country, regardless of state laws.
Although they did not succeed with Friedrichs, right-to-work backers plan to try again when a conservative majority is in place on the Supreme Court.
Tony Burke is assistant general secretary of Unite responsible for manufacturingSign up to Left Foot Forward's weekday email for the latest progressive news and comment - and support campaigning journalism by making a donation today.