Web Only// Features » December 18, 2012
Happy Holidays! GOP Delivers Uncertainty to Middle Class
Republican union-busting doesn’t protect workers’ rights.
Republicans in the past two years have gone hog-wild heightening middle class fear and uncertainty.
Apparently, to a CEO, uncertainty is a fate worse than death. Billionaires bellyache about it constantly on TV, contending they must know, right now, whether next year’s tax rates will rise. Republicans bewail uncertainty, insisting CEOs must know, right now, whether they’ll get a tax holiday for overseas profits.
Their deep, abiding concern about the ill effects of uncertainty doesn’t extend, however, to the middle class. Republicans and far too many billionaires and CEOs are weighing down workers with uncertainty about wages, health insurance and retirement.
In fact, Republicans have gone hog-wild heightening middle class fear and uncertainty over the past two years. In addition to demanding cuts to programs crucial to middle-class certainty, such as Medicare and Social Security, Republican lawmakers in GOP-controlled states across the country have passed “right to work” laws prohibiting union security clauses in collective bargaining agreements. This results in weaker unions and lower benefits and wages, not just for union workers but for everyone in union-insecure states, and creates financial insecurity, the worst kind of uncertainty.
Union security clauses give labor organizations some financial certainty. They require any worker who benefits from a collective bargaining agreement to either join and pay dues or to decline membership and pay a smaller fee covering the cost of union services like negotiation and grievance resolution.
Some states—union insecurity states—forbid these clauses. There’s a total of 24 now, with GOP-controlled Michigan and Indiana joining this year. These governors say their efforts are intended to assist workers in union shops who don’t want to pay anything toward the cost of union services.
So, of course, these governors wouldn’t exclude a particular union from the law, allowing that union to retain security while denying it to all the rest. Right?
Wrong. That’s what Michigan and Indiana Republicans did. Indiana exempted government workers. Michigan deliberately omitted firefighters and police officers. In fact, one Republican lawmaker who voted to deny union security to Michigan steelworkers, auto workers and iron workers tried unsuccessfully to have her husband’s union—prison guards—added to the exemptions. She wanted union security for her family, but she denied it to others.
The GOP in Michigan tried to position itself as the savior of workers, some sort of perverse Superman rescuing those who receive union benefits from the responsibility to help pay for union costs. Superheroes always win in the end, so Republicans should have no fear of a referendum in which voters get the chance to have their say on whether Michigan should be a union insecurity state. Right?
Wrong. The Michigan GOP barred a referendum by attaching an appropriation to the union insecurity bill, which under state law forecloses a ballot measure. That doesn’t make sense if Republicans really believe they’re helping workers. But maybe they remembered what happened next door in Ohio last year when voters smacked down a union busting law in a referendum vote of 62 percent to 38 percent.
Outlawing union security is union busting. That’s because federal law requires unions to represent everyone in a workplace, even those who don’t pay dues or fees. For example, if a worker who refused to pay dues or fees got fired for tardiness and demanded the union file a grievance challenging the dismissal, the union would have to do it. And pay the costs.
That erodes union funds, and ultimately bankrupts some unions. That’s the result sought by Republicans and union-busting, billionaire-funded groups like Americans for Greed—oh, sorry, they call themselves Americans for Prosperity. (Not to mention the other result they want—diminished support for Democrats, who unions typically back.) Republicans and Americans for Greed want to return to the robber baron days before a Democrat-controlled Congress passed the Wagner Act facilitating unionization in 1935.
For the next quarter century, unions and the nation’s great middle class blossomed. By 1960, a third of the nation’s workers were unionized. Unions bargained successfully for certainty for their members—for work weeks limited to 40 hours, for good wages, for safe workplaces, for benefits like health insurance and pensions. Labor organizations helped all workers because industries without unions strove to match union wages and benefits. In those days, families had the certainty required to buy a home, see a doctor and send kids to college.
But Republican-sponsored amendments to the Wagner Act weakened unions, including one in 1947 that allowed states to outlaw union security clauses. Now just under 12 percent of workers are represented. And the GOP is working on getting that number into the single digits, as it was in the days of robber barons.
Income inequality already matches that in the robber baron era. In the nearly 30 years between 1979 and 2007, income for the richest 1 percent grew 275 percent. For the bottom 20 percent, it grew just 18 percent. For the vast middle, wages stagnated, and in the past dozen years, their income—median income—declined 8.9 percent from $54,932 to $50,054.
Laws banning union security clauses will worsen that situation. In union insecurity states, the average workers’ wages are $1,500 a year lower and the typical worker is less likely to receive health insurance or a pension than their counterparts in states that give workers and employers the freedom to negotiate union security clauses.
Republicans in Michigan were gleeful last week. But Republicans in Ohio were jolly when they thought they smashed public sector unions there. An unintended consequence of Republicans attempting to destroy Ohio’s unions was that it prompted an angry workforce to organize politically to overturn the union-busting law, and that Ohio organization a year later helped re-elect union supporter Barack Obama.
The 12,000 who marched in Lansing last week to protest union busting will now make sure that Michigan’s union insecurity law has consequences for the Republicans who voted to deepen middle class uncertainty.
Full disclosure: The United Steelworkers union is a sponsor of In These Times.
ABOUT THIS AUTHOR
Leo Gerard is the president of the United Steelworkers International union, part of the AFL-CIO. Gerard, the second Canadian to lead the union, started working at Inco's nickel smelter in Sudbury, Ontario at age 18. For more information about Gerard, visit usw.org.