Dave Dell Isola, the son and grandson of union members, grew up grateful for the family-sustaining wages and benefits that organized labor won for working people.
But he never fully grasped the might of solidarity until he and his wife, Barbara, and their two sons lost everything in an apartment fire. Dell Isola’s brothers and sisters in the United Steelworkers (USW) rushed to the couple’s side with financial assistance and other support to help them through the tragedy.
“They had me in tears,” recalled Dell Isola, now vice president of USW Local 12012, which represents hundreds of natural gas and propane industry workers in Massachusetts and New Hampshire.
The union bond is so powerful that corporate interests and their allies across the country desperately want to smash it.
Twenty-seven states already have falsely named right-to-work (RTW) laws on the books, and advocates of these union-busting measures now hope to enact them in New Hampshire and Montana.
In addition, corporations and their allies want to make another effort to ram the legislation through in Missouri, even though angry voters there rejected it by a landslide just a few years ago. And Republican lawmakers in Tennessee want to enshrine their anti-worker law in the state constitution, just to make it more difficult for wiser heads to repeal the legislation one day.
Working people only win fair wages, decent benefits and safe working conditions when they stand together. Solidarity also gives union members the grit to survive battles like the months-long lockout that Dell Isola and his co-workers at National Grid in Massachusetts endured during their successful fight for a fair contract.
Corporations want to rig the scales in their favor. They push RTW laws so they can divide workers—tear at the union bond—and exploit them more easily.
These laws allow workers to opt out of supporting unions while still reaping the benefits. Unions remain legally bound to represent workers regardless of whether they pay dues.
And just as corporations want, that erodes union activism and starves locals like Dell Isola’s of the resources they need to bargain with strength, enforce contracts, build solidarity and survive labor disputes.
“It snowballs into not being able to represent people,” explained Dell Isola, noting the laws’ corrosive force not only helps employers depress wages but claw back sick time and other benefits earned with the sweat, blood and unity of previous generations of union members. “It’s un-American to expect people to work for you, bargain for you, and not pay them anything.”
Workers call them “right-to-work-for-less” laws. That’s because people in states with RTW legislation earn 3 percent lower wages, on average, than their peers in other parts of the country.
Also, workers in these states are less likely to have employer-provided health insurance and retirement plans, but more likely to die in workplace incidents, than their counterparts elsewhere.
Nobody, outside of corporations and conservative groups, wants these laws, Dell Isola said, pointing out that officials in New Hampshire rejected the legislation dozens of times over the years “because of the outrage of the people.”
Yet out-of-state agitators with deep pockets are bankrolling another push, hoping they can dupe the Republican legislature and governor into enacting it.
“They’re trying to weasel their way into the Northeast by starting with New Hampshire,” explained Dell Isola, noting an overwhelming cross-section of voters, local government officials and business owners not only adamantly opposes the bill but resents the outsiders’ efforts to foist it on them.
When Republicans and corporations schemed to enact the legislation in Missouri four years ago, John “Tiny” Powell knew how much he and other workers stood to lose. So he joined a broad-based grassroots movement to overturn the law with a first-of-its-kind referendum.
Powell, vice president of USW Local 169G and an electrician at Mississippi Lime Co. in Ste. Genevieve, Mo., stood at a busy intersection for hours and helped to gather 800 of the signatures needed to get the referendum on the ballot.
Ultimately, he and other activists delivered an astonishing 310,000 signatures to state election officials—more than three times the number required—and celebrated the coming referendum with a rally so large that the state Capitol “sounded like a hornet’s nest.”
Powell put hundreds of miles on his car as he traveled dusty rural roads and stopped at one house after another to educate voters about the importance of killing RTW through the referendum.
He explained that dues are a small price to pay for the benefits unions provide. And Powell, who takes pride in his local’s bargaining power every time a member can afford to buy a house or welcome a baby, stressed that strong unions mean strong families.
“These companies are not going to give you everything out of the goodness of their hearts,” Powell said. “They start sweating when they see you standing together.”
Just as Missouri voters turned out in force to strike down a law they never wanted, Dell Isola and a large coalition of New Hampshire residents are working hard to defeat the legislation there.
If enacted, he said, many workers simply won’t stand for it.
As soon as employers take steps to dilute union membership, drag down pay and cut corners on safety, he predicted, many will take jobs in Massachusetts or other states. They’ll go where workers still stand together and fight for the wages, benefits and working conditions that sustained Dell Isola’s family for generations.
“My blood’s been in the union a long time,” he said. “I wouldn’t go any other way.”
Tom Conway is president of USW, the United Steelworkers.