30 Issues: Unions vs. Right to Work

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

30 Issues in 30 Days is our election year series on the important issues facing the country this election year. Today: A look at the role of organized labor in politics and the future of unions. Visit the 30 Issue home page for all the conversations.

Open Prep: Questions, Articles, and Links to Get You Started

Key Questions

  • Should Washington take sides between workers and owners?
  • How much power do unions wield in the electoral process?
  • Why have collective bargaining rights become a target in many states?

What are your key questions on this topic? Post them below and get the conversation going!


30 Issues Interactive from the WNYC Data News Team

Got a Follow Up?

Each Friday we'll be following up on one of that week's issues. Got a particular follow-up question from this conversation? Comment below or tweet us. 

Comments [39]

Massachusetts Governor Patrick "shocked" that labor unions were involved in a shakedown of politicians. NYC used to have that problem at the Javits Convention Center.

(so was Claude Rains )

Sep. 20 2012 10:12 PM
Lee from Queens

There was a really interesting op-ed in the NY Times today arguing that it is in the interest of most women to support federally regulated 1) paid overtime in professional positions and 2) minimum work hours for part-time hourly workers. If unions are weaker, perhaps the public should push its elected representatives for labor laws that better protect it, since the unions can't...

Sep. 20 2012 10:25 AM

Now THAT was a good guest

Sep. 19 2012 10:01 PM

"By making unions weaker, these laws lower wages and living standards for all workers in the state. In fact, workers in states with these laws earn an average of $5,538 less a year than workers in other states. 'Right to work' for less is closer to the truth."

Sep. 19 2012 09:53 PM
NABNYC from SoCal

The right-wing always dreams up words to confuse the topic in question. So "anti-abortion" is replaced with "pro-life." "Estate tax" is eliminated in favor of "death tax." A law allowing corporations to pollute is mislabeled the "clean air act." And anti-union laws are called "right to work."

There is nothing about a union which takes away the rights of workers to work. Instead, unions work to improve the conditions of workers. Studies have shown that even non-union workers benefit when there is a high presence of unions, because employers must pay prevailing wages in order to get desirable workers.

Instead of calling these laws "right to work" laws, they should be called what they are: Anti-union laws. When you look at it that way, it is clear that there is no violation of an individual's "right to work" simply because a union organizes a workplace. The individual may be required to pay his or her share of the union dues in exchange for the benefits they receive from the union. So what. Everybody pays their share of the water system, or fire or police, even if they don't directly use the system. Paying your share is a normal part of being a member of a society.

So unions do not impact the worker's "right to work." On the other hand, anti-union laws do impact all rights of working people including the right to organize, associate with others, speak, think, work with others to gain collective strength because individuals on their own have little power.

Anti-union laws are simply another way to crush workers and give even more power to businesses. Anti-union laws should be declared illegal and banned because they deny workers the fundamental rights they should enjoy as citizens in a democracy.

Sep. 19 2012 01:33 PM
Kathleen E Lo PINTO VIGNOLINI from long Branch, NJ

The "Right to Work" ethos says that the "cost of labor" is to high to be competitive (globally?!?), so it's the fault of the unions. But - What about the cost of Management / CEO's? - Fact is -
- From the late 1970s to 2011 - CEO's pay went up 725% - 380% OR - 42 times - that of the average blue collar workers pay! Big Bonuses are a part of it, even when leaving a company, even having done a poor job!
- Yet the average Workers pay went up only 5.7 %. - OR - The median Income of our J Q Public has remained stagnant or fell drastically, while the costs for goods spiraled up significantly (Ergo, their pay has decreased due to less buying power.)
- This was compounded from 2000 to today! The "real time" difference between workers & CEO's, & this "Right to Work" & "Unionization" debate - is that with the former, workers have LESS "Rights at Work" - work harder, for less & less pay; while the latter gives the workers a voice in their work place.

Sep. 19 2012 12:54 PM
David from NYC

Capitalism is a logical way to allow an economy to perform at a high level, because it brings about a competitive inter-play of supply and demand in the marketplace. At the post-Wisconsin demonstrations at City Hall Park last year, amid all the silly "tax the rich" chanting, I saw a simple 2' x 2' sign that says it all:
It allows for a fair interplay of supply And the labor market!

Sep. 19 2012 12:36 PM

By the way, Brian, having the Manhattan Institute professor give his spin on unions as if he was some kind of objective analyst was dishonest.

If you are going to have dyed in the wool partisans spinning the facts you should state right up front that your guest is a hard core right winger/conservative who is connected to a right wing "think tank" funded by the wealthy.

Sep. 19 2012 12:22 PM

Wen, the "divine" mantra you seem dedicated to is the "market".

There is so much more to life and reality than just money.

Sep. 19 2012 12:18 PM

Look at most of Europe, workers having rights and benefits and universal health care is a good thing.

Who the hell wants Americans to live like Chinese peasants?

If that's globalization it can go to back to the hell form whence it comes.

At some point the pollution will kick in and he CHinese will regret that they destroyed their environment for short term gain....and the millions of cancers will take their toll....and the repercussions of hundreds of millions of people living like caged animals slaving away in toxic factories etc etc etc..all of that is unsustainable.

Sadly even in Europe....globalization is gradually destroying the quality of life. It is not sustainable folks.

There are ways of engendering global prosperity and security for ALL people while healing the environment.....that's what's needed. As it is now.....a tiny percentage of the world's people are becoming more and more rich at the expense of the whole. That is how cancer operates, and that is not sustainable.

Sep. 19 2012 12:15 PM
Wen from Brooklyn

I'm not sure why one would try to attack me. I did not advocate globalization, I am only stating the current reality. Problems have many levels and ramifications that must be analyzed, it is not some binary thing like add more unions, or put high tariffs, you have to look at what problems those changes will bring. We are suffering from that kind of lack of critical thinking now in our country. You must open your eyes if you want to solve a problem, not recant some mantra and expect some Divine changes to take place..

Sep. 19 2012 12:12 PM

Won, the problem with "globalization" is that it's an abstract concept. In the real world the effects of unbridled greed is all manner of toxic pollution. Global warming is real and just may wind up killing us all if we keep on operating under the delusion that making money at amy costs is sustainable.

In human terms there are limits to how much crap you can make people put up with just to survive. Economies bases on slave wages will eventually collapse due to the fact that people will eventually rebel.

A human society in which .0001% is filthy rich and everyone else is a peon whose life is worth nothing is not sustainable.

At some point the peons of China etc will also demand the same human rights that we struggled for in the 19th and 20th centuries.

Your "globalization" is destroying middle class life in the some point the people being screwed will realize just who is screwing them and the backlash won't be managed by PR people blaming Democrats.

America won't go back to the quality of life we had in the 1800's....a civil war would come first....and rightly so. Your attempts to bring back slavery will fail.....slavery is not the "real world"....not sustainable on any level.

We need MORE economic justice and decency in the US, not less.

Sep. 19 2012 12:03 PM
Wen from Brooklyn

@jg8912 from CT, true, you could do that, but then expect the inflation rate to rise quickly overnight, low borrowing rates would be an impossibility. Also, expect a retaliation which would mean we could not sell our debt so liberally. The poor would be hurt as the costs of every basic good rises significantly. It is not quite as easy as you make it out to be.

Sep. 19 2012 12:03 PM
Jack Jackson from Central New Jersey

@Wen -

Ceteris paribus, Wen, ceteris paribus.

But many other factors matter before the actual sale. Is there a relevant quality difference? Is the foreign good environmentally friendly? Is the foreign good even safe to use? What are their labor practices? Does the consumer have the ability to afford better quality?

NAFTA and MFN for China *should have* included ALL of these considerations before they were pushed through Congress...They also should have included an INCREASE in domestic education funding so that our surplussed labor could be re-trained. But the Democrats went along thinking that they could fix the problems once enacted. The GOP has blocked any consideration of these factors as 'anti-competitive'. Until amended, these trade agreements have been exercises in cutting our own throats.

Sep. 19 2012 11:59 AM
jg8912 from CT

@Wen from Brooklyn

We will never be able to compete with China unless we implement the kind of working conditions their workers currently "enjoy" - we'd have to eliminate all worker safety practices that impinged on profits. We'd have eliminate health benefits, paid time off, overtime, 40-hour work weeks, minimum wage, workers compensation. Does that scenario appeal to you? The good news is that since many workers will be exposed to toxic substances and unsafe work practices, there won't be as many folks collecting Social Security.

Or we could impose tariffs on Chinese goods and reverse the disastrous decision made in the 1990's to grant China unfettered access to our markets.

Sep. 19 2012 11:56 AM
Calls'em from McLean, VA

I'm all for unions in the private sector, but not if they are going to be stealing the equity out of businesses like the unlawful "redistribution" of wealth when 0bama stole GM away from it's owners to give to the over-paid union bosses. He should have been Impeached for that alone, but he held a super majority at that moment and the 2010 Repubs have no balls.

Sep. 19 2012 11:55 AM

I would be interested in the union shill's view of the following from a letter by FDR to an Official of the Federation of Federal Employees which stated the President's opposition to strikes by unions of government employees.

" . . . Particularly, I want to emphasize my conviction that militant tactics have no place in the functions of any organization of Government employees. Upon employees in the Federal service rests the obligation to serve the whole people, whose interests and welfare require orderliness and continuity in the conduct of Government activities. This obligation is paramount. Since their own services have to do with the functioning of the Government, a strike of public employees manifests nothing less than an intent on their part to prevent or obstruct the operations of Government until their demands are satisfied. Such action, looking toward the paralysis of Government by those who have sworn to support it, is unthinkable and intolerable. . . . "

Sep. 19 2012 11:55 AM
Amy from Manhattan

Do unions even have CEOs?

Sep. 19 2012 11:52 AM
Mike from Manhattan

The sole source of legitimacy of any government it to provide power the individual based on their citizenship in the face of the overwhelming power of wealth, whether that wealth is hereditary monarchy or aristocracy or the wealth of corporations. Unions are one the few ways that individuals can join together to somewhat level the playing field when negotiating with powers of wealth.

Sep. 19 2012 11:51 AM
Wen from Brooklyn

The elephant in the room is globalization. You can unionize in the private sector all you want, but if you price yourself out of the industry you work in, the industry will be forced to move or die. People are not going to pay extra for unionized goods... low price wins. It's a fact of life.

Sep. 19 2012 11:42 AM
Joe from nearby

@caller "Andy"-
Dude, sounds like your problem wasn't just "making people more productive."

Sep. 19 2012 11:35 AM
Jack Jackson from Central New Jersey

Labor IS global but skilled labor is not. Roboticization, CAD/CAM and cheap telecomm have permitted too much American capital to be put to work in foreign countries...mostly the Pacific Rim. Giving capital gains rate to investors and companies that invest abroad is akin to cutting your own throat. The sirens that bring manufacturing back to our shores are quality and innovation. We make it better or we make the only one. Both of these require a highly educated workforce.

Sep. 19 2012 11:34 AM
Robert from NYC

I agree with the not so favorable to Bill Clinton guy. In addition to what he said it should ALWAYS be mentioned when talking about this depression (yes it's a depression) it was he, Bill Clinton, who did away with Glass Steagall Act that prevented the overly big banks to screw us and aided greatly to the financial collapse. Bill Clinton should be a republican.

Sep. 19 2012 11:34 AM
scott from soho

Unions have done a great deal for public sector employees. The wages, benefits, and pensions are much higher than in the private sector. The net result of this is a bloated government that borrows or prints money to pay the bills.

As someone who actually pays federal income tax, I'd like to see the government spend the tax dollars more wisely. Is it too much to ask that the government adhere to a budget that spends only as much as it takes in?

Sep. 19 2012 11:31 AM
Edward from Washington Heights AKA pretentious Hudson Heights

Didn't WBAI oppose workers at the stations who wanted to form a union?

Now THAT'S hypocrisy.

Sep. 19 2012 11:30 AM
jg8912 from CT

The plutocrats want to crush the unions so they can pay us all slave wages. Is it so hard for conservatives who work for a living to see how they're being conned? I understand business owners siding with Romney, but anyone who earns a paycheck should expend a little bit of thought to try to figure out who's looking out for their interests. Here's a clue. It isn't the wealthy.

Sep. 19 2012 11:30 AM
Shosandra from Brooklyn

This guest is disingenuous at best when it comes to public unions. To use Chicago as an example only disproves his point when you look at the tentative settlement.

Sep. 19 2012 11:28 AM

As long as health insurance is primarily associated with employment, unions will be necessary. Implement single payer, and then we can discuss adjusting the role of unions.

Sep. 19 2012 11:28 AM
jgarbuz from Queens

I am FOR the right of workers to organize and bargain collectively.But the reality is, that the price of labor like the price of oil is internationally determined by supply and demand. You can skirt that for a while, but eventually the global economy will win out in the end.

Sep. 19 2012 11:26 AM
Accra from Queens

Thank you for the definition of "right to work". However, what is the etymology of the term. It seems on the face of it to be Orwellian double-speak.

I associate the term "right to work" with giving an employer the right to fire an employee at will for no reason, for changing workplace rules, schedules, and pay rates with no notice and no recourse.

The term would seem to imply that the worker has rights, but the reality is just the opposite.

Sep. 19 2012 11:25 AM
Shosandra from Brooklyn

FDR also stated quite clearly that unionization has no place for government employees.

Sep. 19 2012 11:24 AM
jg8912 from CT

Romney's labor policies show that he wants to benefit business owners at the expense of working people. Unions are the only reaon most of us wiork a 40-hour week. Unions are the only reason we have medical benefits and paid time off. These didn't exist before unions.

Any Romney-supporter who accepts employer medical benefits, overtime pay or paid time off is a blatant hypocrite. They should reject these "socialist" benefits.

Sep. 19 2012 11:22 AM
Cortlandt St

The Davis-Bacon Act was proposed by REPUBLICANS.
Sen. James J. Davis (R—PA) and Rep. Robert L. Bacon (R—NY-1), the co-sponsors of the Davis–Bacon Act.
Now Mitt Romney wants to repeal the law which calls for prevailing wages on federally-funded projects.
Who says the Republican party has not changed?

Sep. 19 2012 11:15 AM
fuva from harlemworld

Employing the term "right to work" here defers to the Conservative framing of this issue.

To even entertain the notion of organized labor having some advantage today is silly, makes no socioeconomic sense and again gives credence to foolish Conservative dogma.

Sep. 19 2012 11:15 AM

So, basically a Right-to-Work law is *restricting* the free market by making it *illegal* for free people to make certain types of voluntary contracts with each other.

Do the Libertarians understand this?

Sep. 19 2012 11:15 AM
Kathleen E Lo PINTO VIGNOLINI from Long Branch, NJ

Unions protect the worker: they have brought about safer work spaces, fair days wages, fair work hours, better treatment of workers by employers & supervisors, vacation days, health care insurance, etc. - ALL done while working with the bosses, as the Teacher strike in Chicago!
"Right to Work" is just another way for the Boss to have all the controls, while workers are paid less, work more hours, & have no say so on safety, pay, work hours, etc.
Do we want workers & Businesses to work together = union; OR Boss vs employee = right to work?
Businesses have always been anti-Union - look at the "Robber Barons" of the last 2 centuries! Then in 1980 the "elected" ruler of the US deliberately oversaw the demise of unions.

Sep. 19 2012 11:15 AM
Joe from nearby

Brian- Thnx for playing that clip of Mitt dissing the unions. Just shows what an enemy of the middle class he is.

Sep. 19 2012 11:11 AM

I keep hearing the argument that "unions are no longer needed."
But this ignores the fact that over the last 35 years gains in worker productivity hasn't translated into corresponding increases in wages, which have stagnated. The gains have all gone to the top. This in turn damages our economy in the long term.

If unions were stronger this wouldn't have happened.

Sep. 19 2012 11:06 AM
Joe Mirsky from Pompton Lakes NJ

Right to Work

Employee's right to work. Makes it a Class A misdemeanor to require an individual to: (1) become or remain a member of a labor organization; (2) pay dues, fees, or other charges to a labor organization; or (3) pay to a charity or another third party an amount that represents dues, fees, or other charges required of members of a labor organization; as a condition of employment or continuation of employment.
— From Indiana HB 1001, signed into law by governor Mitch Daniels Feb. 1, 2012.

What a wimp! A macho governor would go all the way. Slavery — now that's business friendly!
Oh, right. The Henry Ford thing. We'll sell our stuff to the Chinese! They're slaves too? Oh, all right. Pay 'em $5 a day.

Sep. 19 2012 10:03 AM

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