By JOHN LESLIE
Virginia Democrats gained control of both houses of the state legislature in recent elections with the active support of organized labor. This aroused the expectations of workers and the fears of the ruling class that the Democrats would repeal the anti-union right-to-work (RTW) law, which has been on the books for more than 70 years. Never fear, Democratic Governor Ralph Northam has vowed that he will make sure that RTW stays in force, saying, “I can’t see Virginia taking actions to repeal right-to-work.”
GOP leaders and big business were delighted at the news. Carter Lee, a member of the Virginia House of Delegates, and DSA member, has said that he will introduce legislation to do away with RTW, but there is little hope of passage.
Northam barely survived a scandal in February 2019, when a photo of him in blackface appeared in the press. While some Democrats like Joe Biden had called for him to resign, Black Democratic legislators in the statehouse threw support behind him to stave off a GOP succession to the governor’s office.
RTW’s racist roots
In every state where RTW has passed, the income of working-class households has fallen, and the unions have been weakened by attacking the unions’ dues base and the union shop.
These laws, with their roots in the Jim Crow segregated South, have spread to 27 states and Guam. Conservatives pushed for RTW by exploiting fears of “race-mixing and communism.” Fourteen states passed RTW legislation by 1947, the same year the Taft-Hartley slave labor bill was enacted by Congress. One provision of Taft-Hartley (Section 14 b) made it legal for states to pass right-to-work laws.
RTW does not guarantee the right to a job. Under RTW workers have the right to work in a unionized workplace, but are not obligated to pay any sort of fees or dues to the union for that representation. Federal law requires that the union represent all workers under their protection—even those who refuse to pay dues. This provision undermines the power of the union by banning union shops and saps the financial resources of the union.
States with RTW legislation on the books have lower wages (on average, $6109 annually) and benefits than states without these laws. Living standards, measured in terms of access to education (spending 32.5% less per pupil), health care, infant mortality, workplace safety, and poverty, are lower in RTW states.
Conservative writer William Safire praised the commonplace usage of the term “right to work” as a “linguistic victory for management.” The term right-to-work is a mind trick—a deception designed to allow bosses to obscure the meaning of the law. It’s a deception similar to the right wing’s use of “right to life” to define opposition to a woman’s right to choose.
The GOP and Trump
During the 2016 campaign, Trump played populist by mouthing pro-worker platitudes in struggling communities. Coal miners, steelworkers, and autoworkers heard Trump’s message as a promise to resurrect their jobs and communities. Forty three percent of union households reportedly voted for Trump. At the same time, Trump has been effusive in his praise for RTW.
“We’ve had great support from [union] workers, the people that work, the real workers, but I love the right to work,” Trump said. “I like it better because it is lower. It is better for the people. You are not paying the big fees to the unions. The unions get big fees. A lot of people don’t realize they have to pay a lot of fees. I am talking about the workers. They have to pay big fees to the union. I like it because it gives great flexibility to the people. It gives great flexibility to the companies.” One of the goals of the GOP is a national RTW law.
Democrats are unreliable allies
The Democrats try to portray themselves as friends of working people, but the reality is different. The Democrats’ actual record is less inspiring than the images of the New Deal or Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society that they hand down. Over the past four decades, the Democrats have been accomplices in the austerity, globalization, and union busting that has destroyed the living standards of workers.
So-called centrist Democrats, from the Clinton-Gore Democratic Leadership Council to today’s Blue Dogs, have worked to ensure that the needs of the ruling rich are met above everything else. Clinton became president on the heels the term of the first George Bush. Bush had tried to push through the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and was met with fierce resistance from the labor movement. Despite his anti-labor record as governor of Arkansas, unions got behind Clinton. Workers were rewarded with budget cuts, no card check to ease organizing, a major attack on welfare programs and a draconian and racist criminal justice reform.
The icing on the cake was the passage of NAFTA with little resistance from the labor bureaucracy. Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Michigan have each has lost more than 200,000 manufacturing jobs since NAFTA was implemented in 1994.
After two terms of George W. Bush, unions turned their hopeful gaze to Barack Obama, who promised: “If American workers are being denied their right to organize and collectively bargain when I’m in the White House, I’ll put on a comfortable pair of shoes myself, I’ll will walk on that picket line with you as president of the United States of America. Because workers deserve to know that somebody is standing in their corner.”
That promise never materialized. While workers made some limited progress in terms of overtime rules and other changes, the Obama administration abandoned action on the Employee Free Choice Act (card check) and raising the minimum wage. In fact, as sentiment grew for a raise in the minimum wage to $15 per hour, AFL-CIO bureaucrats teamed up with Democrats to push for a raise to merely $10.10 per hour—a proposal that was never fulfilled. During the Great Recession, the Democrats and Obama saved the biggest banks but did nothing to bail out working people.
Wealth inequality in the U.S. has increased, with 95% of economic gains going to the top 1% since 2009, when the “recovery” from the Great Recession began. Income inequality has reached the highest point in more than 50 years. The bottom 50% of families, representing 62 million U.S. households, average $11,000 net worth.
The wealthiest 1% possesses 40% of the nation’s wealth while the bottom 80% owns 7%. Eight people, six from the U.S., own as much wealth as half of humanity. Only the top 20% fully recovered from the Great Recession.
Build a fightback!
Fighting RTW is an urgent task for the labor movement and the left in the coming period. And our goal should not be limited to stopping this reactionary anti-worker legislation. Instead, we should be strategizing a road forward that rolls back RTW and builds union power in the workplace and society. Unions in Missouri won a clear victory against RTW in 2018 as voters overwhelmingly rejected a right-to-work law passed by the state’s Republican-controlled legislature.
United-front mass actions and political independence are critical elements of a workers’ fightback. Mass mobilizations are just one weapon in our arsenal; work stoppages and other job actions are necessary. This includes preparing union members and their supporters to engage in a general strike, a method that has been employed in Europe and Latin America (generally for one or two days) but rarely used in the U.S. in recent years. The general strike is a serious question requiring preparation inside the unions and other working-class organizations. We must rebuild fighting unions instead of groveling for crumbs at the bosses’ table.
The betrayal of the Democrats in Virginia is an example of why we need to start preparing for a Labor Party in the U.S.—a party based on fighting unions and organizations of the oppressed. For decades, the union bureaucracy has subordinated the interests of union members and the broader working class to the needs of the Democrats.
Time and again, the Democrats give us half measures and sell us out to please Wall Street. We are told repeatedly that a Labor Party isn’t viable, but the hard truth is that the Democrats would be dead in the water without union money and our get-out-the-vote efforts. Instead of expending our precious resources to elect fickle allies, working people should build a party of our own.
Photo: Light Brigading / Flickr