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Working In These Times

Thursday, Jan 12, 2012, 6:39 pm

Why Did Rick Santorum Flip-Flop on National ‘Right to Work’ Law?

BY Mike Elk

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Last year, former Senator Rick Santorum (R-Penn.) described Wisconsin protesters as drugs addicts. So it was bit surprising to see Santorum recently attacked by the National Right to Work Committee for being too supportive of unions. In an e-mail to Ben Smith of Buzzfeed, Patrick Semmens of the anti-union National Right to Work, said:

Rick Santorum’s' position on Right to Work should be deeply troubling to the 80 percent of Americans who believe workers should not be forced to pay dues or fees to a union just to get or keep a job. Not only has he refused to answer the National Right to Work Committee's Presidential Survey, but while in the Senate he joined with Democrats to filibuster the National Right to Work Act. Siding with Big Labor in favor of union boss forced dues powers should be particularly troubling to the people of South Carolina, who've spent the last year fighting off attacks by the Obama Labor Board on the state's popular Right to Work law and the jobs it has helped create.

As a senator, it turns out, Santorum voted in favor of letting states decide on right-to-work laws—which outlaw "union shops" allowing nonunion workers to enjoy bargaining benefits without paying dues. But at a GOP presidential debate last weekend, Santorum said that he now supports a National Right to Work Law. The candidate said he didn't vote for one in the U.S. Senate "because Pennsylvania's not a right-to-work state and I didn't want to vote for a law that would change the law in Pennsylvania."

As a senator from the relatively union-friendly state of Pennsyvania, Santorum on some ocassions voted for bills that appeared to be union-friendly. He voted in favor of legislation that would have outlawed the permanent replacement of strikers by employers. He also voted in favor of legislation favored by construction unions called Davis-Bacon, which "requires government contractors to pay workers the local prevailing wage." Santorum also voted against NAFTA.

Santorum’s support of relatively pro-union legislation over the years led influential conservative blogger Erick Erickson of RedState to say that Santorum is "on the wrong side of National Right to Work" and "[Senator] Jim DeMint will do him no favors in South Carolina.” (Obviously Erickson wrote that before Santorum's switch to supporting a national "right to work" law.)

However, this is not to say that Santorum is a pro-worker anti-corporate champion. As the number three senator in the Republican Caucus, Santorum was associated with the notorious K Street project that sought to consolidate the GOP’s grip on lobbying power in Washington D.C.

For decades though, many Republicans were willing to at least affirm the right of collective bargaining, while not necessarily being in favor of redistributing wealth. Current criticism of Rick Santorum for being too pro-union is a far cry from when former Republican President Dwight D. Eisenhower said, “Workers have a right to organize into unions and to bargain collective with their employers. And a strong, free labor movement is an invigorating and necessary part of our industrial society.”

Even as recently as 2003, President George W. Bush attended a Labor Day event at an Operating Engineers Union Hall in Richfield, Ohio, where he praised union members who participated in the rescue attempts at World Trade Center. The video of Bush praising the unions rescue efforts and unions roles in working with companies to provide skilled workers is well worth watching. It's difficult now

Given the GOP's recent intensifying attacks on unions, it's become nearly impossible to image a top leader in the party showing up at a union hall to praise a unon for anything at all.

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Mike Elk wrote for In These Times and its labor blog, Working In These Times, from 2010 to 2014. He is currently a labor reporter at Politico.

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