Why America’s labor unions are about to die
I’ve written before on how the decline of organized labor beginning in the late 1970s gave birth to the backlash that fueled Donald Trump’s election. Labor’s deterioration weakened worker protections, kept wages stagnant and caused income inequality to soar to the highest levels in over eight decades.
It also made workers feel they needed a savior like Trump.
In other words, his unlikely victory follows a straight line from the defeat of the Labor Reform Act of 1978 to the Nov. 8 election. That bill would have modernized and empowered unions through more effective recognition procedures accompanied by enhanced power in negotiations. Instead, its death by filibuster became the beginning of their end.
It’s a sad twist of irony that Trump’s election and Republican dominance across the country may finally destroy the institution most responsible for working- and middle-class prosperity. It will likely be a three-punch fight, ending with the expansion of right-to-work laws across the country that would permanently empty the pockets of labor unions, eroding their collective solidarity.
In 1980, union membership stood at 23 percent of the work force. Some 40 years later, just over 11 percent of American workers belong to unions.
Three key areas will play a crucial role in union diminution and workers’ bargaining power during Trump’s administration.
The first is regulatory. Trump has the opportunity to appoint two new members to the National Labor Relations Board now controlled by Obama appointees with administrative discretion to implement pro-labor decisions. Trump’s future replacements undoubtedly will promote a business-friendly agenda, and the board’s shift in emphasis will be immediately apparent.
The second is the Supreme Court. If Trump fills the vacant seat with someone in the mold of the late Antonin Scalia, the new court will likely uphold what in my view is the rickety constitutional theory of union dues put forth by Samuel Alito in Knox v. SEIU. Alito’s rule holds that a public sector union member will be deemed to “opt out” of paying dues unless they “opt in.”
In early 2016, the Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association case, which would have mandated a constitutional right-to-work rule, stalled out with Scalia’s death, but a similar case is moving through the lower federal court system.
The most lethal blow against unions is the expansion of right-to-work laws.
Trump ran on a platform of making America great again by restoring incomes through innovation and deregulation. Trump’s plan meshes perfectly with the ideology of right to work, which promotes itself as a tool of development and economic advancement.
Twenty-six states have now enacted right-to-work laws, which forbid compulsory payment of union dues by workers who are covered under a collective-bargaining agreement. The laws create a free-rider problem because under the exclusive-representation doctrine, employees who do not pay dues must still receive the same wages, benefits and protections as those who do.
Republicans in the past election won a legislative trifecta in the states of Missouri, Kentucky, Ohio and New Hampshire. Those states are not now right-to-work.
In Missouri, Republicans legislators said they expect to pass a right-to-work law that bars mandatory union fees early in 2017.
Legislators in Kentucky followed a slightly different route by focusing on county rather than statewide legislation. Their gambit paid off in November, when a federal appeals court upheld the validity of a county right-to-work law. Expect the entire state to adopt the policy soon.
New Hampshire defeated right-to-work initiatives in 2011 and 2015. But with the election of a Republican governor and legislature, the issue could prevail.
And in Ohio, a Republican legislator introduced a bill in April to ban compulsory dues payments. While Gov. John Kasich is not enthusiastic about right to work, he could yield to political reality if the bill passes.
Clearly, right-to-work supporters have seized the initiative and are marching on the offensive. With enough political momentum, the battle for right to work could soon migrate to the federal level, where a national right-to-work bill is pending in Congress. Republicans have the votes to pass it in the House. In theory, it could face a filibuster in the Senate, but as a practical matter, right to work may pass in the battle for Democrats’ political survival.
Since the Taft-Hartley Act of 1947, class forces in this country have fought for supremacy over the political and economic machinery as Republicans attempted to roll back the consequences of the New Deal legislative revolution. Right to work figures importantly in the struggle between labor and capital.
As I show in my book on the subject, right-to-work laws are statistically correlated with lower rates of union membership, lower levels of human development, lower per capita incomes, lower levels of trust and less progressive tax schemes. In short, the empire of right to work leans toward further entrenching the power of corporations, not the economic emancipation of American wage earners.
The voters who brought Trump to the big dance would be the ones who suffer. As an article in Fortune suggests, Trump’s plan for deportations and broken trade agreements will inflict serious injury on the economy in general and in particular on those industrial sectors that elected him. The rest of us will be collateral damage.
Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks during a roundtable discussion on Sept. 5 with labor leaders and union members at American Legion Post 610 in Brook Park, Ohio.