2017 could be a tough year for labor unions at the state level. According to NPR, Kentucky has become the nations’s 27th “right-to-work” state, and Missouri and New Hampshire could join it in February. New Hampshire would become the first “right-to-work” state in the Northeast. Advocates in New Hampshire claim that “right-to-work” will entice businesses to relocate to the state, while opponents assert that “right-to-work” creates free rider problems and constitutes political reprisal against unions for supporting Democrats.
At the federal level, things might not be much better. The Washington Examiner reports that two Republicans will introduce national “right-to-work” legislation tomorrow. President Trump’s purported support has “right-to-work” advocates optimistic, despite previous failures in Congress.
With respect to President Trump’s agenda, unions are prepared to fight. Per Bloomberg BNA, “labor groups representing immigrants, women, blacks, Latinos and Asian-Americans vowed collective action against President Donald Trump at a rally in Washington Jan. 27” and “[Representatives from AFL-CIO constituency groups] promised grass-roots organizing with regional union chapters to protect immigrants and union workers and to ensure sanctuary cities remain.”
In 1912, when the labor leader Eugene V. Debs ran for President for the fourth time as the Socialist Party candidate, in his acceptance speech he spoke of a day when “the right to work shall be as inviolate as the right to breathe the breath of life.” But, in the 1940s, the term “right-to-work” was hijacked by right-wing business interests, and used to describe laws that do not actually give anyone the right to work.
The failure of the labor movement to take ownership of the term “right to work,” and to adopt an alternate term for laws that exist solely for the purpose of undermining collective bargaining is both a symptom and a cause of labor’s decline. There is an obvious parallel between the terms “right to life” and “right to work.” But, when those who want to outlaw abortion started talking about the “right to life,” defenders of reproductive freedom immediately realized that using that terminology would inevitably lead to defeat since it’s very hard to be against a right to life. But, where is the labor movement’s equivalent to the phrase “pro-choice?”
In his 1944 State of the Union address, Franklin Delano Roosevelt proposed a second bill of rights that included the “right to a useful and remunerative job.” After FDR’s speech, there was an effort to pass a full employment law that would have made it the official policy of the United States to assure sufficient employment to enable all Americans to exercise the “right to useful, remunerative, regular and full-time employment.” Needless to say, that never became law. A watered down version of the bill was enacted in 1946, and in 1978, the Humphrey-Hawkins Act declared as a national goal “the fulfillment of the right to full opportunities for useful paid employment at fair rates of compensation of all individuals able, willing, and seeking to work.” The Humphrey-Hawkins Act expired in 2000.
This post is part of a series on Labor in the Trump Years.
A presidential loss, especially an unexpected one, produces no shortage of scapegoating and second-guessing among activists and insiders of the defeated party. In this regard, the otherwise unprecedented 2016 election proved utterly normal. The emerging narrative pins the Clinton campaign’s shocking Electoral College defeat on its neglect of the white working-class, a constituency buffeted by decades of de-industrialization and declining union memberships. As evidence, adherents of this theory point to Rust Belt counties and states that flipped from blue to red between 2012 and 2016, and exit polls showing a smaller share of union households backing Hillary Clinton than Barack Obama. Journalists have had no trouble digging up disaffected white working-class voters who cast their first Republican ballot this year.
What’s remarkable is how quickly this narrative congealed into conventional wisdom. As an interpretation of what went wrong, it leads to one obvious path for Democrats to take going forward, summed up here by the Times’ David Leonhardt: “Figuring out how to win more white working-class votes, especially in the Midwest, has to be at the center of any Democratic comeback plan.”
Choosing this path would be a mistake.
The postmortem continues, as commentators seek to understand the reasons behind Donald Trump’s win this week. Writing for The Wall Street Journal, Professor Michael Kazin argues that the decline of unions had an important role, creating an institutional vacuum that left white working-class workers vulnerable to Trump’s brand of populism. NPR breaks down the numbers, suggesting that the GOP’s huge gains in certain states — especially among uneducated white voters — are a sign of the Democrats’ “cratering with blue-collar white voters.”
Meanwhile, questions abound over what a Trump presidency will mean for workers. On the campaign trail, President-elect Trump talked tough on trade and promised to keep jobs in the United States. Now, his supporters are counting on him to keep those promises. The Christian Science Monitor takes a look at whether Trump can deliver on his promise to coal country to “bring the . . . industry back 100 percent.” And The New York Times shares the perspective of factory workers in Indiana who — having cast their ballots for Trump — now expect him to stop their plants from moving overseas.
Commentators have also started to speculate over the details of the next President’s labor policies. Fast Company offers a few predictions, including new restrictions on hiring foreign workers and a potential reshaping of the NLRB. POLITICO weighs the chances that the Labor Department’s overtime rule, set to take effect this December, will survive the Trump administration unscathed. JD Supra looks at how the Trump administration could shake up the EEOC, starting with personnel changes and a tighter budget.
And finally, lest we forget another big winner in this week’s election, The National Review discusses the renewed momentum of the right-to-work movement. Republicans who campaigned on right-to-work platforms in three states — Kentucky, Missouri, and New Hampshire — could now be in a position to pass legislation making union dues optional. Moreover, now that the GOP will be filling the vacant seat on the Supreme Court, the 4-4 split in Friedrichs could also tilt in their favor, extending right-to-work to government employees nationwide.
About half of the private-sector workers in the United States do not have any type of employer-sponsored retirement plan. Next week, California could become one of the first states to take measures against this coverage gap, when it votes on a plan that would automatically enroll most uncovered workers in individual retirement savings accounts. If passed, California’s plan could serve as a “national model,” according to The New York Times, in ensuring post-retirement security for American workers.
A new poll suggests that what union members want is choice. In a survey of 300 rank-and-file union members across the country, almost 70% are reported to believe that employees should represent themselves if they decide not to pay dues. While unions continue to challenge right-to-work laws in the courts, researchers at the Mackinac Center for Public Policy argue based on these findings that workers should have the choice to opt out of paying dues — as long as they then handle their own representation instead of “free-riding” on a union.
Earlier this month, in a move designed to narrow the wage gap between men and women, Massachusetts became the first state to prohibit employers from asking about applicants’ past salaries before offering them a job. This week, commentators at The New York Times consider what other measures could help combat wage inequality, from greater wage transparency to prohibiting the practice of negotiating for higher salaries.
Lastly, with some voters feeling disillusioned over America’s two leading political parties, The Atlantic takes a closer look at the Working Families Party, which landed significant victories in last week’s Connecticut primary. The party’s latest proposal is a “low-wage employers fee,” which would require large companies to either pay their employees $15 an hour, or be charged by the state for the cost of the public services their employees use.
In one of the first tests of public appetite for universal basic incomes, Swiss voters rejected the proposed welfare reform by steep margins this weekend. Projecting from initial returns, a local polling group estimated that nearly 80% of voters opposed the measure. Switzerland would have been one of the largest political units to deploy what many economists have argued would be a liberating and dignifying alternative to current welfare programs, though voters appear to have sided with critics who challenged the budget impact of the plan and suggested it would lower workforce participation.
Rachel Abrams of the New York Times writes that more than a year following Walmart’s pledge to increase wages to a baseline of $10 an hour, progress has been uneven. The average part-time worker’s wage has risen more than a dollar since February of 2016, but workers report decreased merit raises and a new, extended training program that pays only $9 an hour that some commentators suggest represents an attempt to slow the roll out of the promised higher wages.
More reporting on the strikes in France resulting from labor reforms introduced by the government, with new doubts as to whether the actions will disrupt the 2016 UEFA European Championship that starts in less than a week. Public opinion polls show weakening support for the striking workers, who in recent days have engaged in a series of power cuts to areas supporting President Hollande. On Friday, inter-city rail services were reduced more than 40%, and concerns have grown that an unrelated strike by Air France pilots planned to begin shortly after the soccer tournament will further disrupt transportation in the country.
Labor officials in Maine are struggling to help employers meet demand for seasonal workers during the summer tourism season, A.J. Higgins reports for Maine Public Broadcasting. A confluence of factors, including reduced access to foreign workers, appears to have shrunk the labor pool this year. Planned interventions include improving transportation to the state’s more rural interior and reaching out to retirees. Continue reading
Increasingly frustrated by their inability to affect employment law at the federal and state level, progressive advocates have turned their attention to local government. At this level, they have been able to enact ordinances to raise the minimum wage, guarantee paid sick day laws, and even protect LBGT rights in the workplace — proposals, which have all failed at the federal level. Conservative groups, most notably, the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), have fought these reforms by lobbying for state bills preempting local action.
But, in another context, this dynamic has been turned on its head: ALEC has led the campaign to enact local right to work ordinances. While ALEC’s instrumentalism has been noted, progressives also have a conflicted position on preemption. In the face of a rigid preemption regime governing federal labor law, the progressives cannot explore whether the NLRA would benefit from more regional variation as it has in the minimum wage context.