WTF, RTW? A right-to-work primer

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Thanks to recent terrible Supreme Court decisions and workers' big win in Missouri in August, the term “Right-to-Work” (RTW) is back in the news in a big way. It's a big ole lie of a term, here's a reminder about what it is, and why it's both a threat and an opportunity for workers and the labor movement.

What Are “Right-to-Work” Laws? 

“Right-to-work” are U.S. state laws that prohibit unions from requiring that dues or service fees be collected from all workers covered by, and benefiting from, a union contract. By making dues payments voluntary, RTW laws can erode union member- ship and resources. Labor activists often call them “right to work for less,” because they’re designed to make it harder for unions to effectively represent workers and press for policies that benefit all workers – even those without unions. “It weakens the general overall climate for union support,” said Jim Wrenn, a former shop steward and current president of UE Local 150 at the Cummins diesel engine plant in Rocky Mount, NC. With RTW, Wrenn said, “when you have a union contract, not all the workers are members of the union, so you may have to represent workers who aren’t members.”

What Makes These Laws Possible?

U.S. federal law. In 1947, Congress passed the Taft-Hartley Act, which opened the gates for RTW, to discourage organizing. Canada does not currently have a RTW law, but there is concern that some anti- union trends may lead in that direction. 

How Common Are These Laws? 

Now, 27 states have enacted RTW laws. Recent additions to the list include Kentucky (2017), West Virginia (2016), Wisconsin (2015), Michigan (2012), and Indiana (2011). Other states now targeted by the National Right to Work Committee, the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), and their corporate backers include Missouri and New Hampshire. These laws can affect both private and public sector unions.

     It creates an anti-union climate – but then again you’ve still got rights. You have to exercise your rights.

What Does RTW Mean for Union Membership?

It means that employees in the bargaining unit must choose to join the union and pay dues. Employers often respond by encouraging current members to opt out and discouraging new employees from signing up.

Are Non-Dues-Payers Excluded from the Contract?

No. Unions are still legally bound to represent everyone, whether or not they belong and/or pay dues. This is “the duty of fair representation.” So people can get the benefits of a contract without supporting the union.

How Can the Union Still Do Its Job? 

The idea behind RTW is to weaken unions through membership attrition and loss of dues income. Imagine 20 or 30 percent of your co-workers drop their membership: Union strength could be seriously under- cut, followed by management-initiated divide-and-conquer tactics.

It doesn’t have to work that way.

Chad Neanover, a union steward with the Culinary Union Local 226 of Unite Here at The Flamingo club in Las Vegas, says he finds it rewarding to be a shop steward in a RTW state. “I get to work to make the Culinary Union a stronger place through getting active with members,” he said. Culinary sends its shop stewards to identify and talk directly with workers who don’t sign up or pay dues (or opt out). “It usually ends up being a series of conversations. I find out what their issues are, what they need to know, and what their complaints are about the union...I’ve actually been  able to sign up everybody that I’ve talked to.” With this program, said Neanover, the Culinary Union has managed to get 90% of workers in its shops to pay dues – even though Nevada is a RTW state.

What Does This Mean for Union Stewards?

Right-to-work laws make a union steward’s job tougher – but stewards are up to the challenge. As Jim Wrenn said, “It creates an anti-union climate – but then again you’ve still got rights. You have to exercise your rights.”

One challenge for stewards is educating members about voluntarily paying dues. If you’re not in a RTW state, you have to make sure your members are aware of what “right-to-work” really means.

In addition, many members may see the union as a kind of insurance agency, with members passively paying dues like insurance premiums, filing grievances like insurance claims. Union stewards in RTW states say changing this mindset is crucial.

“We’re going to have to look at a new way of fighting,” said Mike Fendley, a meat cutter and a steward with UFCW Local 227 in Louisville, KY. His state became the newest RTW state in January 2017, when the governor signed the law over the objections of working Kentuckians. “Because you’re trained as a union steward,” Fendley said, “you’re going to have to come on stronger and get people involved with the union. Get people out to the meetings. Get people out to do union work and see what it’s all about.”

Stewards can promote member participation by communicating with every member (and prospective member), orienting new members, welcoming new participation, and hosting social events. 

When members can contribute, they’re no longer passive consumers. When goals are clear and everyone has a role to play, it strengthens the organization. Neanover said the union harnesses that member energy when it is time to negotiate a new contract. “We’re a community out- reach organization more than a service organization,” he said, “because we educate the members to see that every time we go into negotiations, if we are all united, we can get better conditions inside the shops.”

—Fred Kotler & Mariya Strauss. Kotler is a long-time organizer and labor educator. Strauss, a Baltimore-based writer, publishes in a variety of national publications.

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