This month I want to address so-called right-to-work legislation, recently passed in Michigan, and the sane, reasonable gun regulation opposed by the National Rifle Association. It should be obvious that right-to-work laws are a labor issue, but I believe weapons regulation also is a labor issue and it is long past time for the AFL-CIO to take a strong stand.
Conservative George Will's widely syndicated column on Michigan's right-to-work law claimed Republicans were "striking a blow for individual liberty and against coerced funding of the Democratic Party" by passing legislation to prohibit any requirement that workers pay union dues as a condition of employment. But today's conservatives ignore the principles of individual responsibility and paying one's fair share for the benefits received from a union workplace. A right-to-work law frustrates the democratic majority in a workplace that votes for a union as the exclusive bargaining agent for all wages, benefits and working conditions.
Thanks to the concerted efforts of the 1 percent for more than a generation, 88 percent of jobs are now non-union. Obviously, if non-union workers in union workplaces could command better wages, benefits and working conditions elsewhere, they would change jobs. They not only want but demand the benefits of a union, both from collective bargaining and contract enforcement, even though they put the cost on their co-workers. Non-union workers demand and receive help to litigate individual contractual claims, as well as in disciplinary and termination proceedings. Grievance and arbitration hearings for an individual can cost thousands of dollars that their union co-workers pay for, and the law does not allow any discrimination in representation for these non-members.
As for funding the Democratic Party, candidate endorsements by labor are the result of democratic votes by workers or their elected representatives, and union dues cannot be donated to a political candidate's campaign. Compare this to the huge sums spent by labor's opponents in the past election cycle. Do the employees of corporations and banks have a voice in whom their bosses spend company profits to elect?
The right-to-work bill passed by Michigan's lame-duck legislators was made possible by billionaires-the DeVoses, Kochs, etc.-because the law will further enrich the few at the expense of the many. Since the Taft-Hartley Act allowed right-to-work laws in 1947, being enacted over President Harry Truman's veto, the economic results have been clear: In right-to-work states, workers earn $1,500 less per year; median household income is about $6,400 less; 28 percent more people lack health insurance; and the incidence of workplace deaths is an astounding 36 percent higher, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Lower wages mean a lower tax base, fewer services, less infrastructure, less money in the economy and fewer good jobs.
Let's face it: Unions have had a bad deal even without right-to-work laws since Ronald Reagan busted the air traffic controllers' union. Those who wish to organize a union must deal with co-worker cynicism, fear of job loss, company snitches and bosses' pets, mandatory anti-union meetings in the workplace, threats to abolish departments, cut wages and do just about anything to frustrate workers' democratic rights-all with little fear of the inconsequential penalties for violating labor law. Until right-to-work laws and Reagan's go-ahead to business, labor law dictated that workers' choice to remain on their own or bargain collectively was solely their decision, and the boss had no say and no vote.
Today's journalists and pundits would do well to research the history of the right-to-work movement and its founder, Texan Vance Muse. Muse was an unabashed racist, a promoter of the Ku Klux Klan and similar organizations, including his own Christian American Association. One quotation from Muse on union membership says it all: "From now on, white women and white men will be forced into organizations with black African apes whom they will have to call 'brother' or lose their jobs."
One of the leaders in the Kansas right-to-work movement was Fred Koch, father of today's right-wing billionaire Koch brothers. Fred and 11 other industrialists also co-founded the fascist John Birch Society, which taught that President Dwight Eisenhower was a communist agent of Moscow and the civil rights movement was a communist conspiracy, as were unions. These beliefs were not aberrations but standard for the leadership and members of the right-to-work movement.
Non-union workers make less with fewer benefits in right-to-work states. The right-to-work movement is just another part of the class war on working people, to deny workers democratic protections. Right-to-work is an assault on democracy, individual responsibility and the unions that built the middle class, the only democratic institutions run solely by and for workers.
How does the anti-union right-to-work movement connect to the National Rifle Association? The NRA, basically a sportsmen's club when I was a kid, has evolved into a corporate lobbyist for gun manufacturers and arms dealers. They use funds from big-money donors to also support anti-labor positions such as right-to-work.
The Second Amendment right to bear arms was intended to protect the security of our American democracy, not to oppose it. Those who think the Second Amendment gives them the right to oppose American democracy and the rule of law with weapons are not known as patriots; they are traitors. As for a standing militia to protect us, we have evolved over generations to create the greatest and most powerful military in the world. The NRA has never accepted a limit on the number or type of weapons. But I can find no historical evidence that the Second Amendment was unlimited, allowing private citizens to have their own warships on the river or their barns filled with cannons and cannonballs.
Democracies with stronger gun laws that are enforced will generally have far fewer than 100 gun deaths a year, and the United States is generally around 30,000, including 2,500 children. Among the world's 22 richest democracies, our gun deaths exceed the total of all the rest by far.
For how many years did right-wing racist private citizens rely on the Second Amendment to empower the KKK and enforce Jim Crow with terror and murder?
The NRA slogan that if you outlaw guns, only outlaws will have guns has been turned on its head by the same NRA. By opposing background checks and hindering enforcement, it has produced a society in which 40 percent of weapons sold are purchased without background checks; it has made sure that outlaws such as convicted felons, as well as the insane, not only have guns but have weapons of mass destruction. Experts say these assault rifles can even bring down a jetliner from several thousand feet. Think about that when you're on a plane.
Lastly, as a union officer, I have an obligation to fight for workers' safety on the job. Homicide is the third-leading cause of workplace deaths for Americans and the No. 1 cause of workplace deaths for women. Remember the children in Newtown, but also remember their teachers.
Shame on us, including the national AFL-CIO, for failing to take a position on common-sense gun control.
James Bertolone is president of the Rochester Labor Council, AFL-CIO. He also is president of the American Postal Workers Union Local 215.1/18/13 (c) 2013 Rochester Business Journal. To obtain permission to reprint this article, call 585-546-8303 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.