Union dues blues

Thursday, September 6, 2018
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Montana Viewpoint

It’s Labor Day, but organized labor doesn’t seem to be doing so well. Since 2012 six state legislatures have passed “right-to-work” laws , bringing the right-to-work total to 28 states, and the Supreme Court has recently decided a major case—Janus v AFSCME—by holding that government employees do not have to pay union dues if they don’t want to, this disregarding the fact that those employees are entitled to all the benefits that the union negotiators have won.

Once you get away from the state legislatures and the courts, however, labor looks like it may not be doing all that poorly. Recent successful statewide teacher strikes in West Virginia, Arizona and Oklahoma have forced concessions from their respective legislatures. What’s more, the striking teachers seem to have garnered significant community support for their actions. In an April 2018 survey conducted by Associated Press-NORC 78 percent of the respondents thought teachers were paid too little and over 50 percent of them were willing to pay higher taxes to cover a raise. In addition to those successful strikes, voters in Missouri last month defeated a referendum to enact a rightto-work law by a margin of two to one. It’s even more significant that those four states are all controlled by Republicans.

In Oklahoma, the past ten years of cuts to education (28%) are linked to significant income tax cuts and equally significant tax cuts for oil production.

Labor unions began their ascendency in the late 1800s and early part of the last century with the goal of improving working conditions for America’s working class. There was a lot to improve. Children as young as six years old worked in New England’s textile mills, a work day could last 12 hours, a work week could be seven days. Out of this antiworker mess unions were able to limit work days to eight hours and a work week to 5 days. Yes, organized labor gave us the weekend.

The struggle wasn’t easy. Working men and women were killed fighting for it. Business interests have never been too fond of labor unions, and now that they hold the political cards business is doing its best to diminish the power of unions.

It’s strange; some businesses seem to believe that treating employees well keeps the business from making money, but for other businesses, treating employees well is how they make money. I give you Walmart and Costco as polar examples. Go ahead, ask the employees themselves how they like their jobs. I have.

So, what’s at work with right to work? Labor unions negotiate agreement with management on wages and benefits for the employees of the business—not just union employees, all employees. Part of those agreements is that since all employees are entitled to benefit from the success of the negotiations, all employees should pay union dues or their equivalent, whether they belong to the union or not. That doesn’t sit well with some employees who figure, I guess, that since they will get the benefits anyway, there is no need to share in the payment for it.

To put it mildly, in America the labor-management issue has been contentious and often violent. In Europe, by contrast many companies have a union representative on their board of directors. This seems logical to me. The union board member has a vote and an opportunity to influence policy. After all, if the workers are going to have any benefit from their employment the business will have to be making money, which can be problematic when labor and management distrust each other so much that they are each willing to inflict harm on the other.

The key takeaway of the past year is that when labor depends on support from courts and legislatures, it loses, but when they take their case to the public, it wins. There’s some sort of message there, isn’t there?

Jim Elliott served sixteen years in the Montana Legislature as a state representative and state senator and four years as chairman of the Montana Democratic Party. He lives on his ranch in Trout Creek.

Montana Viewpoint appears in weekly papers across Montana and online at missoulacurrent.com .