“Right to Work” Bills Pose Fundamental Threat to Workers

Core to our work at NELP is the belief that all workers have the right to good jobs in safe workplaces, with fair wages and the opportunity to advance at their workplace and in their communities.

For decades, unions have been the main driver of working people’s rights and civic engagement in the United States. By joining together into unions, America’s workers built the world’s strongest middle class and won benefits and protections—like Social Security and non-discrimination laws—for all of us.

Through unions, workers have won higher wages and safer workplaces, a voice on the job, and ways to challenge unfair employer practices and play a bigger role in national and state politics and policy.

But unfortunately, this vital forum for workplace change is under attack, along with many workplace safeguards, from a livable minimum wage to overtime pay.

The usual suspects are to blame: Huge corporations and their lobbyists and government allies, who know that undermining unions weakens workers’ power to challenge economic rules rigged by and for big business and the super-rich.

Recently, that knowledge has been driving a wave of so-called “right-to-work” laws at the federal and state level. Though “right to work” may sound like it expands workers’ rights, in reality it represents yet another corporate strategy to block workers from receiving a fair share at work and in the economy.

Right-to-work laws operate by crippling the ability of unions to stand up for workers and by pitting workers against each other. By law, unions must represent every worker in a unit equally. But in right-to-work states, where unions are forbidden from requiring equal dues from their members, some workers reap the benefits unions deliver without sharing the costs, instead passing the buck to coworkers to foot the bill for all the union does.

All workers in a bargaining unit share equally in the benefits unions provide, and all should pay at least a fair share of the costs required to win those benefits. Any other approach undermines workers’ power, paving the way for lower wages and a host of unlawful actions.

Throughout their history in the U.S., unions have served as the backbone of a strong civic society, encouraging worker participation in the policies and laws that impact their workplaces and helping working people to become active at the polls and in local government. At a time when voter apathy in the U.S. is at an all-time high, the role of unions in driving civic engagement is more important than ever—both for workers and for society as a whole.

“I was a member of 1199SEIU for a few months, when I was given an opportunity to see if I could make a difference,” explained Amanda Mitchell, a hospital worker and member of 1199SEIU United Healthcare Workers East. “To my own surprise, I was able to save the job of an employee who worked here a lot longer than I have. Now I have a passion to change things for myself, my coworkers, my son, and future generations.”

Ms. Mitchell’s empowering experience as a union member is a textbook example of how union involvement helps workers to make a difference in the lives of themselves, their coworkers, their families, and their communities.

But those experiences may become much less common. There are a total of 28 states with right-to-work legislation on the books (almost every state with both a Republican governor and a Republican state legislature). In these states, the unionization rate is less than half the rest of the country’s. (It’s worth noting that as the unionization rate decreases, so does civic engagement. This is not a coincidence).

Meanwhile, at the federal level, a pending Supreme Court case could prevent all public sector unions from requiring dues, impacting about half of the nation’s 14.6 million union members and their families.

As with the efforts of state governments to stifle local raises to the minimum wage, the under-the-radar, behind-the-scenes nature of right-to-work legislation makes it that much harder to fight—but with the fate of workers on the line, fighting is essential.

Over the next few weeks, we are asking our friends and supporters to pledge their opposition to the effort to dismantle unions even further through right-to-work, in partnership with a coalition of groups committed to protecting and defending America’s workers and their vital workplace rights.

You can sign the petition here, and please stay tuned for further updates on this important topic and other issues affecting working people.

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