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For years, polls showed that Americans have been basically split fifty-fifty on the subject of right to work laws. The idea that someone should be forced to do anything – much less be required to join an organization like a union and pay dues to it – is repugnant to the American way of thinking, but that instinct was counterbalanced by the equally instinctive fear of greedy robber-barons running corporations. The unions themselves generally got a free pass, since union leadership cloaked themselves in the purity of their members. Unions like the UAW and Teamsters were able to portray themselves as merely providing “a voice” for the average worker, rather than powerful, wealthy organizations that had a vested interest in using their position to perpetuate their own prestige, influence and profitability.
We often focus on wages and benefits when it comes to unions, but the influence of big labor extends far beyond these two categories. This is why Governor Scott Walker won’t be satisfied with wage and benefit concessions alone in Wisconsin. The long-term health of the state demands that the balance of power be restored as well. The same is true in the private sector and that’s where right to work laws come into play. Big labor has wrung remarkable, often outrageous, exemptions from lawmakers over the years. Far too often, big labor imposes draconian work rules on employers that ruin productivity as well. Consider one small, but representative, personal experience: At one point in my professional career, I was twiddling my thumbs in a steel mill with a five man work crew for several hours while we waited for a millwright to stroll over and push the “up” button on a one-ton hoist that would get our equipment to the roof of the shop we working on. There was nothing magical about pushing the “up” button, but the union made sure that only a millwright had the right to do so. It was a silly and stupid rule and it didn’t benefit either millwrights or the steel mill in the long run, but it did make the union that much more important. The more we have to compete with nations like China and India, the more damage counter-productive work rules will do to America and, by extension, to the American worker.
Indiana is another signal that people are starting to wake up to the disproportionate role that labor unions play in the balance of power between employers, employees and the governmental institutions that are supposed to look after everyone’s interests. Organized labor’s free pass in the court of public opinion has expired. New Jersey, Wisconsin and Indiana are all evidence that a new day is dawning. If big labor is going to justify its continued existence, it will have to find a way to change course, abandon its divisive, shrill rhetoric and learn to co-exist within the America that actually exists today. The states and the populace are slowly waking up to the fact that they have to find a way to deal with the economic realities of 2011 rather than the abuses of 1911. That means that the power and influence of big labor is going to suffer. The unions aren’t happy about that fact, but the nation will be all the better for it.
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