The Right to Work Campaign and the Open Shop
The Right to Work keeps making the news. A recent Yahoo report [5-5-15] quoted Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker campaigning in Iowa where he said “He would champion a federal version of the controversial ‘right to work’ law he signed earlier this year.”
Another Yahoo piece by Sara Burnett [5-1-15] reports that Illinois Republican Governor Bruce Rauner travels from town to town to promote “cutting unions down to size.” He wants to expand the right to work in “empowerment zones” in which voters could approve making union membership voluntary, rather than mandatory, at unionized workplaces in their communities.”
Management has always promoted the right to work they just called it the open shop in the years before the National Labor Relations Act of 1935 and the Taft-Hartley Amendments of 1947. In the open shop era management expected to hire and fire anyone at any time whereas a union wanted recognition that required management to hire only union members: the open shop versus the closed shop.
In the open shop era unions typically had to strike to get recognition and bargain for a closed shop because management doubted unions had the solidarity to justify giving in to a union. During a Senate investigation after the 1919 steel strike Senator Thomas Walsh questioned former Judge Elbert H. Gary of United States Steel. Senator Walsh wanted to know why Judge Gary refused to negotiate with the steelworkers union. He asked “Did you decline because they were officials of organized labor or because you believed they did not represent the true feelings and sentiments of your employees?”
Judge Gary answered that he did not believe the union leaders “represent the sentiment of the large majority of our people, if any of them.” His statement came after the steel strike when 365,000 steelworkers walked off their jobs; many were not even union members.
Senator Walsh asked if there were any other reasons he refused to talk with labor leaders. He said “Well, I want to be frank enough to say that it has been my policy, and the policy of our corporation, not to deal with union labor leaders. … We are not willing to do anything, which we believe, after consideration, amounts to the establishment of a closed shop as against an open shop, or that tends to do that. We stand firmly on the proposition that industry must be allowed to proceed untrammeled by the dictates of labor unions or anyone else except the employer and the employees and the government.”
It was an age before any restrictions from labor relation’s law so a union could strike and shut down production of any industry if it had the solidarity and the economic power to support members in a strike. Judge Gary doubted steel unions had the economic power to win strikes, but with an open shop he had no restrictions from labor relations law either. He could fire anyone for joining a union if he could find more labor to replace them.
In the open shop era managers would tell the press they wanted to protect the right to work of loyal employees. In his testimony to Senator Walsh Judge Gary declared his opposition to the closed shop in those exact terms. He said “When an employer contracts with the union labor leaders he immediately drives all of his employees into the unions. Otherwise they cannot get employment.”
So true, except union leaders know they cannot maintain a wage scale for anyone if management can fire high wage union employees and replace them with low wage non-union employees as they can do with the open shop.
In the modern era the right to work discussion is the equivalent to the open shop with slight differences caused by the passage and evolution of U.S. labor law after 1935. Collective bargaining agreements start by setting union security that defines who will be in the bargaining unit and the requirements for employees to be in the union and pay union dues. Unions want the closed shop as the best possible way to control membership in their union.
Other forms of union security evolved as a compromise between the extremes of a closed shop and the open shop. The union shop requires new hires to join the union in 60 to 90 days. An agency shop requires payment of a non-member fee as long as the union used the non-member funds only for contract negotiations, contract administration and grievance procedures rather than for political or ideological activities.
However, the closed shop was banned with the 1947 Taft-Hartley Amendments and Section 14b gives authority to state governments to eliminate the union shop, and the agency shop for unions within their state. Twenty-five states have eliminated the union shop, agency shop and all dues check off, which makes them right to work states in the popular jargon of union hating business and their politicians everywhere.
Once a state legislature passes Section 14b legislation it becomes much more difficult to organize a new union because the new union has to be an open shop with no control over its membership. For established unions dues check off ends and union members can volunteer to pay union dues. Union members and nonmembers alike have the same rights under an existing collective bargaining contract and so no one has the incentive to pay dues for what they get for free.
Because American labor law requires a union to represent all workers in the bargaining unit existing private sector unions with collective bargaining contracts can continue after Section 14b legislation, but without control over new members or the right to collect dues, they will be in a fight to survive.
The wording of Section 14b does not have “right to work” anywhere in it. Those who oppose unions characterize the conditions of union security as a violation of individual rights and personal freedom. Governor Walker said “As much as I think the federal government should get out of most of what it’s in right now, I think establishing fundamental freedoms for the American people is a legitimate thing and that would be something that would provide that opportunity in the other half of America to people who don’t have those opportunities today,”
Governor Rauner said “These special interests have got to be stopped. That’s the key to turning our state around.”
The wealthy classes and their politicians call unions a special interest group because it helps divide the working class just as it did back in Judge Gary’s day. America’s working class is so big it could be the dominant class but only if Americans understand what class they are in, which some do not. In the last few years Governor Walker has convinced the low paid working class of Wisconsin that union members are in a separate privileged class. Instead of recognizing the common interests of everyone who works for wages and the need to raise everyone’s wages, they identify with Judge Gary and Governor Walker as though they could benefit from the intentions of the wealthy. Do they prefer to work for low wages?
In the piece mentioned above by Sara Burnett she quoted a guy named Joe Steichen, a board member of a union in Illinois: Operating Engineers Local 150. When talking about Governor Rauner’s plans, he said “the county has a healthy budget surplus and business environment achieved without trying to "destroy" the working class.” Here is a guy who knows what class he is in. For those who work for a living and support right to work legislation, they should be known as the class of fools.