The growing war between big labor and state governments flared on another front in the center of America yesterday, as the battle lines spread from Wisconsin to Indiana, where a Republican sponsored right to work bill moved forward. In an eight to five party-line vote, the bill passed through the House Employment, Labor and Pensions Committee. It will now be considered by the entire Indiana House, where Republicans outnumber Democrats by sixty seats to forty. Union leaders and their allies on the left are pushing back as hard as they can in Indianapolis as they are in Madison, working to portray this legislation as just another “assault on the working man” designed to line the pockets of modern-day robber barons. That line of messaging has been big labor’s most effective public relations strategy for decades, because it played to America’s instinctive propensity to root for the underdog. Yet, developments in Indiana are further evidence that more and more people believe that too many labor unions aren’t fighting “the man” any longer; the powerful unions have instead become the man.
Reform in New Jersey and on-going attempts at reform in Wisconsin have been limited to public sector unions. Indiana represents another step in the process, this time dipping into the private sector. Twenty two states currently carry right to work laws on their books, all of which are in the south or lie to the west of the Mississippi. If Indiana joins the club, it will be the first industrial rust-belt state to do so, a move that would put a good deal of pressure on its neighbors. The Midwest’s other traditional industrial powers – Ohio, Michigan and Illinois – have been struggling economically for a while, hemorrhaging both employers and jobs at alarming rates, even factoring in the recession. A right to work state smack in the middle of the three would undoubtedly increase the bleeding and force each to consider making a similar move, or see the rate of decay accelerate as Indiana prospered. It’s all well and good to declare that you’re for the working man, but that message isn’t going to resonate for long in a state where there’s no work to be had.
Advocates of forced-unionism argue that right to work laws are designed to line the pockets of evil corporations by picking the pockets of workers. That argument may have contained elements of truth during the hey-day of J.P. Morgan and John D. Rockefeller (and there is a good deal of disagreement among historians about how bad the so-called robber-barons actually were), but it’s hardly a relevant representation in 21st century America. By any measurable standard, workers make more money, live better, have more employment opportunities and are happier in right to work states than they are in forced-unionism states. The supposed benefits of forced-unionism for workers are wholly theoretical. The only group that actually benefits from forced-unionism is union leadership. In an editorial published on February 3, the Wall Street Journal outlined the case for right to work laws:
A new study in the Cato Journal by economist Richard Vedder finds that from 2000 to 2008 some 4.7 million Americans moved from forced-union to right-to-work states. The study also found that from 1977 through 2007 there was “a very strong and highly statistically significant relationship between right-to-work laws and economic growth.” Right-to-work states experienced a 23% faster rise in per capita income over that period. The two regions that have lost the most jobs in recent years, the once-industrial Northeast and Midwest, are mostly forced-union states.
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.