“When you are approaching poverty, you make one discovery which outweighs some of the others. You discover boredom and mean complications and the beginnings of hunger, but you also discover the great redeeming feature of poverty: the fact that it annihilates the future. Within certain limits, it is actually true that the less money you have, the less you worry.”
George Orwell, Down and Out in London and Paris
As a fan of George Orwell I have grown to wonder if too many of our political geniuses misinterpreted his classic work 1984 as a how-to book on controlling the masses. Had they read his earlier autobiographical work Down and Out in London and Paris, they would have understood that Orwell was a man of the people and his sympathy was planted firmly with the poor, the outcast and the working class.
Of all the Orwellian phrases in common use these days one of the most egregious is the Right to Work. Adopted in twenty-three states, right-to-work laws effectively ban labor unions by prohibiting workers from gaining union representation by a majority vote. The Right to Work is the right of a worker to refuse to pay union dues. Because unions gain power by representing workers as a united front in negotiations with management, right-to-work laws negate that power.
As a result of these union-busting laws, unions have ceased to function and workers earn less. The average worker in a right-to-work state earns anywhere from $1,500 to $5,000 less per year than workers in other states. They receive less in health benefits, less in pension benefits and less protection from unsafe conditions or unfair dismissal.
Studies have been inconclusive on the decline of union representation as a result of right-to-work laws because unions must already have declined in order for such laws to be adopted. The law therefore serves as a substantial roadblock to rebuilding a union movement.
The war on labor does not end with Right to Work. Having decimated labor in the private sector (as of January 2011, according to Bureau of Labor Statistics, the number of union workers in the private sector fell to a 100-plus-year low of 6.9 percent), anti-labor forces have taken aim at the public sector. The tactic of choice against police, firefighters, teachers and other government employees is attacking the right to collective bargaining and binding arbitration.
To fully comprehend this attack, you need to understand that government employees are often prohibited by law from striking to achieve fair treatment in negotiations with their employers. In those cases where it is legal to strike, conscientious employees are loath to do so because of the harm it would do to students and communities. Binding arbitration by an impartial body is an alternative to the strike.
When you take away the right to fair arbitration, you leave workers at the mercy of their employers and you cut the union off at its knees.
These same politicians who yearn for yesteryear when the middle class was strong and the American dream of upward mobility was still alive, neglect to tell you that those were the days when unions were on the rise.
The peak rate of union workers in this nation was the mid 1950’s. After the experience of the Great Depression and the Second World War, Americans understood that if workers were to achieve financial security they needed representation to counter the power of corporations and bankers. Combined with the GI Bill, enabling veterans to gain a college education, the union movement more than any other single phenomenon created the working middle class.
The statistics are staggering. From a high of 35% of workers represented by a union to a low of 11.9 % today, if you wonder why wages have stagnated while corporate profits have exploded, look no further.
Both of the key strategies in the war on labor operate on the same principle: divide and conquer.
The right-to-work laws divide the workforce into those who support the union, who feel a sense of responsibility to fellow workers, who recognize the need for unity in representation against the powerful, against those who will not sacrifice a red penny of their paycheck for the common good.
The assault on collective bargaining is an attempt to divide private workers, who have already lost their union rights, against public workers, who earn more and claim greater benefits because they have retained union representation.
We are all in this fight together. If we wish to push back the most powerful force the world has ever encountered, corporate greed, we must unite against the tide. The right to organize the workplace, the right to unionize, must be fought for and defended.
We are under siege. We are the victims of a devastating fifty-year war against workers that is relentless and without mercy. The corporations have taken control of our government with unlimited sponsorship of elected officials. They have moved our industries to China, Malaysia, Indonesia and elsewhere, without any concern for the welfare of our nation or its people. They have outsourced our technology service, drafting and infrastructure planning jobs to India. They have reduced their share of tax responsibility to a minimum with offshore accounts and favorable legislation, forcing a beleaguered workforce to pick up the tab. And they have done all this with a sense of entitlement.
We are just beginning to fight back. We are beginning to understand that if we speak out in one voice, the 99 against the one, our politicians will begin to listen. We are beginning to understand that fighting for labor rights overseas will bring the jobs that are rightfully ours back home.
China does not own America.
The low point in this war on labor was in 2010 when the anti-labor forces took control of our legislatures but they overplayed their hand. In 2012 we must take back control and reverse the course of the nation.
The corporations do not own us.
The first part of the labor agenda must be to strike down right-to-work laws in the 23 states that now embrace them. The most efficient means is a federal law affirming the principle of majority rule as fundamental to the rights of labor. Barring that, states that uphold the rights of labor should establish a policy of preference to those states that do the same. Right-to-work states should be held to account. States that fail to acknowledge the basic right to organize the workplace should pay a price.
The second part of the labor agenda should be an affirmation of the right to collective bargaining and binding arbitration as an alternative to the general strike. Again, federal law is the most efficient means to this end but state alternatives should serve to provide motivation should the federal government fail.
The corporations that have taken control of our government will cry foul. They will accuse us of class warfare to which we will reply: yes, but now we are fighting back.