Michigan’s recent battle makes this a good time to explain the union movement’s important role in our economy’s overall health. We’re about to explain why today’s war on unions is bad for all of us, no matter what we do for a living, and we’ll do it in four steps.
But first a word about language: “Right to work” is a misnomer for laws which let employees enjoy the benefits of union membership – at least for a little while, until they’re stripped away – without joining or contributing.
So we’ll call them “right to shirk” laws instead. And we’ll call the people who back these laws Shirkers.
And while we’re at it, let’s stop calling the states that have adopted this legislation “right to work.” They don’t give people any new rights. They take rights away, by making it illegal for employees to organize and negotiate together. They even take away employers‘ rights – to sign a certain kind of contract.
So let’s give the other states a name instead: In a nod to the Jim Crow origin of these laws, let’s call the ones which don’t have these laws “free states.”
Right to Shirk laws allow freeloaders to profit from the efforts of others – without contributing to the effort, and in a way that harms the common good. The billionaires and corporations behind these laws wouldn’t deliberately do anything like that, would they? Why, that would be like letting people make billions from the works of government – things like roads, the Internet and publicly-educated customers – without paying their fair share of taxes.
Right to Shirk laws are job-killers. Here are four steps to understanding why:
1. Think nationally, not just locally.
Advocates say these laws create jobs. They don’t. Their “evidence” is based on studies which show modest job growth in Right to Shirk states when compared to free states. But all that proves is that places that are politically hostile to organized labor also offer other types of corporate favoritism.
It also suggests that Right to Shirk states can steal jobs from free states — as long as the jobs last, anyway.
The Shirker movement was started in the late 1940s by a handful of Southern politicians who were in the palm of big textile mills. They were able to draw textile jobs away from free Northern cities like my hometown of Utica, NY – until those jobs left this country altogether. That’s not “creating” jobs — that’s killing good jobs and replacing them with ones that don’t pay enough.
The concept of “solidarity” has been tarred with McCarthyite smears. But “solidarity” is just another way of saying “We’re all in this together.” The Right to Shirk crowd wants to stop that kind of thinking so it can pit state against state and employee against employee, shredding our social fabric for personal gain.
It’s no accident that the Shirker movement was started by the reactionary white politicians of the Jim Crow South. Back then they were still pining for the days when they could offer some folks the “right to work” … for nothing.
2. We’re fighting over a shrinking pie instead of making the pie bigger.
Things are bad. We need millions of jobs – and the jobs we do have don’t pay enough.
The graphic which Business Insider likes to call “the scariest chart ever” shows how far we are from creating the number of jobs needed to make this country’s economy grow and thrive again. Job growth like that we’ve seen recently is always welcome, but it’s not nearly enough to get us out of this ditch. How do we get moving again?
To answer that question we need to know what’s worked in the past.
3. The real “job creators” are people with jobs – good jobs.
How did this nation finally escape the after-effects of the Great Depression and begin its greatest decades of economic growth? Government spending - on roads, bridges, schools, and other vitally needed services – played a key part.
Unions were a crucial part of this process, too. By fighting for higher wages and better benefits, unions ensure that working people have the means to purchase consumer items, housing, and other goods and services. Companies have to hire more people to keep up with demand – and the good jobs keep coming.
That’s why the Republican Party platform of 1956 boasted that “unions have grown in strength and responsibility, and have increased their membership by 2 millions” during Dwight D. Eisenhower’s first term. Back then Republicans understood that a growing middle class was good for the entire economy. That party platform also said that “America does not prosper unless all Americans prosper.” Their rule: No shirkers.
But then in those days our economy wasn’t dominated by Wall Street megabanks – institutions that don’t build or sell anything. And politicians weren’t completely in bankers’ pockets back then, because the public wouldn’t have tolerated it.
We shouldn’t tolerate it now.
4. When you kill unions, that reduces consumer income – which kills jobs.
The Shirker assault on unions has taken its toll. Only 25 states remain free to unionize, and union membership has fallen dramatically:
Their logic would suggest that the plunge in union membership we’ve seen since 1960 must have led to a rise in good jobs. Did it? Let’s take a look at manufacturing:
That’s my freehand drawing (and therefore not exact) of the trend line in union membership, superimposed by the number of manufacturing jobs in the United States. Manufacturing jobs kept on increasing for more than twenty years, even as union membership increased. These jobs experienced periods of decline and stagnation as union membership fell, even before the devastating impact of NAFTA.
Consumer demand is vital to growth. That demand is tied to consumers’ income, and to their belief that life in the future will be as good or better than it is today. Those are the two things we need to reinforce, and unions are crucial to that effort.
We need to get our economy growing again. Until then most Americans, unionized or not, will continue to struggle with stagnating wages and an ongoing economic drag that can feel a lot like a recession. As Paul Krugman likes to say (he said it in our radio interview), This isn’t rocket science. We know how to do this.
Destroying unions is just another way for the Shirkers to make sure that we never do.