Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Why "right to work" is bullshit

Today is going to be a different sort of blog post. Normally I talk about technology, but helping to run a startup, finishing a book, and preparing for the imminent birth of my first child have all prevented me from posting for a while. But recently I've heard a lot of obvious bullshit about an issue that pushed me to the point of writing about it.

A little back story before I get to the purpose of this post, and my point. Tonight I attended the Southern California Python Interest Group Meetup, where one of the speakers discussed continuing education. More specifically on how online education courses, free online resources, and social interaction have grown and become very effective at teaching new programmers. One of the topics that was brought up was a relative lack of shared cultural context (history, literature, politics, etc.) that can be missed when only relying on online resources. This is because when you are interested in something, you learn as much as you can about that one topic, but you don't necessarily learn very much about the world of stuff that is out there. My contribution was to say that if you are in the position of being an educator or peer to someone who is missing some of this education/context, that you should suggest literature, movies, or other media that can offer information about the context of these things, as context is important in everything.

The "right" to work

Recently, the state of Michigan passed a law that essentially says that if you are working in an otherwise "union workplace", you no longer have to pay union dues in order to gain the benefits of the union bargaining process.
I'm going to ignore a lot of the arguments for and against these so-called "right to work" laws, because almost all of them miss the purpose behind the laws actually being passed, miss the context in which unions were created, and completely forget the reasons why unions are still important today.


In the industries in which most individuals are employed, the employer has the power. Make no mistake, aside from a few specific highly-educated, highly-trained, or high-demand careers, the employee has very little power. The employer decides wages, can say yes or no to vacation scheduling, can lay off or fire employees for little to no reason, can require salaried employees to work evenings or weekends (through explicit or implied threats of reduced bonuses, demotions, no raises, etc.), ... Unless your social circle is very limited, you will know someone who is worried about whether they will have a job in the future.

Unions exist to balance power. They were created literally from the blood, sweat, and tears of people who had suffered from the power inequity inherent in the employer - employee relationship. Unions in the United States sprung from a society where people injured on the job would be fired because they could no longer do the job. Where an employee who questioned their boss could be fired and blacklisted from an entire industry. And in some industries, talking about collective bargaining could get you fired or even killed.

While some of the many issues that caused the spread of unions in the United States have been addressed through laws (anti-blacklisting, workers compensation, anti-monopoly...), workers in the United States (and all over the world), still need to be protected.

Confusing the issue

One of the many methods that proponents of these laws use is to confuse the issue with bullshit. These "right to work" laws are not about letting everyone get a fair shake at getting and keeping a job (in fact it reduces the protections that employees have from employers). It is about removing the only effective check to rising corporate power in the United States. You should find it damning that the same people who say that unions shouldn't exist (either explicitly or through right to work laws) are the exact same people who think that corporations should be allowed to spend unlimited money on political campaigns, and that unions shouldn't be able to spend union dues on politics at all. Political figures who are advocating for right to work are trying to take away the worker's right to be represented in politics through organizations who are actively looking out for them - their unions.

I've also heard accounts of "last-hired, first-fired" in education being an example where union contracts have gone bad, and that this is why unions need to be stopped. But this is just an argument to confuse the real issue. Those contracts were agreed upon to protect career teachers that wouldn't have other employment opportunities outside the school that they'd been teaching at for decades (in some cases), because despite attempts to address the issue, ageism exists in the United States, just as surely as racism, sexism, glass ceilings, and homophobia do. To the point, the issue isn't who should be hired or fired, depending on the budget. The issue is that we are not spending enough on education.

Summing up

If there are just a two things that you take away from this (in addition to wanting to learn more about the history of unions and union creation in the United States), they should be:
  1. Arguments that use one or two example contracts as reasons why unions don't work are confusing the issue - there are millions of union-negotiated contracts that don't have those clauses
  2. "Right to work" laws are an attempt to reduce employee power, to reduce low/mid-level employee wages, to provide more short-term corporate profits, to ultimately increase pay to executives (union labor workers generally earn 10-30% higher wages compared to non-union labor [reference])