The GOP’s National Right to Work Bill Is a Smokescreen—The Threat Is What Comes Next

Moshe Z. Marvit

Democrats would be wise to treat this bill for what is really is: a public relations stunt that has little chance of success, but is more broadly being used to help promote right-to-work efforts in the states. (Photo by Bill Pugliano/Getty Images)

Last week, Iowa Congressman Steve King introduced the National Right to Work Act, which would create a nationwide ban on the requirement that workers who are represented by a union have to pay for the costs associated with representation. The bill was cosponsored by South Carolina’s Joe Wilson, whose primary claim to fame is having yelled you lie!” at President Barack Obama from the back benches of a joint session of Congress.

In the two weeks since Donald Trump’s inauguration, King, in addition to the National Right to Work Act, has introduced bills to make it easier to fire workers who have union sympathies (with the Orwellian title, Truth in Employment Act”), to repeal the Davis-Bacon Act, which requires paying prevailing wages for federally-funded construction projects, to repeal President Lyndon Johnson’s Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965, which has served as the modern foundation for public education in America, and introduced a resolution to amend the 14th Amendment of the Constitution so that it no longer apportions the number of Congressmen by counting the number of people in each state, but by counting the number of persons in each State who are citizens of the United States.”

Clearly, this is the wish-list of someone who has a perverse view of the nation. King has always been an extreme individual. The question is whether in Trump’s America any of his ideas should be taken seriously. Almost two years ago, King introduced an identical right-to-work bill, which garnered 75 original cosponsors, with an additional eight within a week. By contrast, King’s re-introduction this year had one original cosponsor (Wilson), with only seven more joining as cosponsors in the week that followed. 

Furthermore, within about a week of introducing the House bill in the last Congress, Sen. Rand Paul introduced a Senate version, with 14 original cosponsors, including Senate Majority Leader, Mitch McConnell. This time there was no Senate companion bill.

So what happened? Surely Republicans are in a much stronger position to pass a nationwide right-to-work bill now than they were in 2015 with Obama and a guaranteed veto. But the reality is that even with control of the House, Senate and presidency, Republicans will still not likely be able to pass such legislation. In order to pass the bill, Republicans would have to get the support of almost the entire party in the House, and would have to get eight Democrats on board in the Senate in order to defeat a filibuster.

In the last Congress, when the bill was largely symbolic because it had no chance of being signed into law by Obama, House Republicans were barely able to get more than half their caucus on board. (Compare that to the similarly fruitless efforts to repeal Obamacare, which Republicans repeatedly passed). In the Senate, too, they never got close to having unanimous support within the party. This time around, there appears to be even less early support for the National Right to Work Act.

With the plethora of serious reform efforts being mounted by Republicans (healthcare, immigration, environmental, employment and so much more), Democrats would be wise to treat this bill for what is really is: a public relations stunt that has little chance of success, but is more broadly being used to help promote right-to-work efforts in the states.

Right-to-work laws have been passing in states at an accelerated pace, with Missouri becoming the 28th state to pass such a law. Still, in several states controlled by Republicans, right-to-work laws are unlikely to pass because some Republicans have experience with unions or relationships with labor, and many employers depend on the stability that a unionized workforce delivers. These legislators are largely able to keep such positions that are at odds with the national Republican Party because they have not experienced a barrage of outside pressure and spending. A national fight over a right-to-work law would bring increased attention to the issue on the state level and would make it harder for sympathetic state Republicans to remain under the radar. 

Furthermore, King’s National Right to Work Act can serve to distract attention away from rule changes and executive orders that will affect millions of workers.

Labor should, of course, get reaffirmations of support from Democrats, and a few labor-friendly Republicans, but it should not fall into the trap of fighting a National Right to Work Act head-on. Instead, it should continue to build alliances among other progressive groups and expend its resources in fighting the reforms that have a serious chance of passage. Labor groups should keep an eye on this bill, but save their fire for more pressing matters.

As an example, labor should put its resources into organizing government workers. These workers are getting attacked on all sides and there is a great deal of anxiety among them. Workers need protection, they need answers and they want to have their voices heard. This is the time when being a member of a union can have the most appeal, and public sector unions should seize the moment to make their case to government workers.

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Moshe Z. Marvit is an attorney and fellow with The Century Foundation and the co-author (with Richard Kahlenberg) of the book Why Labor Organizing Should be a Civil Right.

Democratic Rep. Summer Lee, who at the time was a candidate for the state House, at a demonstration in Pittsburgh for Antwon Rose, who was killed by police, in 2018. Lee recently defeated her 2024 primary challenger.
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