Slowly but surely, across the country, Republican governors and state legislatures are making progress in their war against labor unions, especially ones that represent public employees. Just yesterday, there was bad news from two states.
In Indiana, Gov. Mitch Daniels signed a bill making Indiana another “right to work” state, which is one of those slogans, like “pro-life” and “family values,” that sounds unobjectionable, but isn’t. That law is relatively simple: It prohibits labor contracts from requiring workers to pay union dues. The spin is that this is better for everyone. The truth is that it is not only bad for labor but also bad for the economy.
Unions will reduce a company’s profits somewhat, because they get higher wages for workers. But economists have found that unionization has a minimal impact on growth and employment. Six of the 10 states with the highest unemployment have right-to-work laws in place. North Carolina, which has the lowest unionization rate in the country, 1.8 percent, also has the sixth highest unemployment, 10 percent.
In 2010, wages of workers in unionized manufacturing companies in Indiana were 16 percent higher than in non-union plants. One Harvard study, published this summer in American Sociological Review, concluded that the decline in unionization since the 1970s is responsible for one-fifth of the increase in hourly wage inequality among women, and one-third among men.
The other bit of news on Wednesday came from Arizona, where Republican lawmakers are pushing a bill that would ban collective bargaining for public-sector employees.
They are mimicking a similar – and I think ultimately unconstitutional – law in Wisconsin, which pioneered the idea of singling out the people who work for their government and denying them the right to collective bargaining.
There has been a backlash. Opponents of the bill in Wisconsin have managed to recall two state senators who worked on it, and they have their sights on Gov. Scott Walker. Last November, Ohio voters overturned a bill that would have stripped most public employees of their right to collective bargaining.
The Republicans are not just waging an anti-union campaign, but an anti-government campaign as well. Right-wingers believe government is the cause of all things bad in the economy and in society, and are willing to sacrifice those who toil in the public interest in their effort to hobble it.
Proponents of the anti-union laws have told me it’s reprehensible for public employees to negotiate over wages, benefits and working conditions when their employer is the government to which we all pay taxes. When I ask, how is that different from negotiating with any employer, the answer I generally get is “it just is.”
Unions have over-reached in many ways, clinging to wage-and-benefits agreements that are simply untenable in today’s economy. But they are fundamental to maintaining fairness for workers. And governors in many states, including New York, have managed to get concessions from public employee unions without outlawing them.