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The false slogan of right-to-work: an attack on worker freedom

LEE SAUNDERS | 12/7/2017, 3:52 p.m.
Today’s economy is rigged against working families and in favor of the wealthy and the powerful. That’s not by accident. ...
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Today’s economy is rigged against working families and in favor of the wealthy and the powerful. That’s not by accident. CEOs and the politicians who do their bidding have written the rules that way, advancing their own interests at the expense of everyone else.

Now, they’re trying to get the rigged system affirmed by the United States Supreme Court. In a few months, the justices will hear a case called Janus v. AFSCME Council 31, which would make the so-called “right-to-work” the law of the land in the public sector, threatening the freedom of working people to join together in strong unions.

The powerful backers in this case have made no secret about their true agenda. They have publicly said that they want to “defund and defang” unions like the one I lead. They know that unions level the economic playing field. They know that unions give working people the power in numbers to improve their lives and communities, to negotiate a fair return on their work while keeping the greed of corporate special interests in check.

Union membership is especially important for communities of color, historically providing a ladder to the middle class, helping them earn their fair share of the wealth and the value they generate. More than half of African-Americans make less than $15 per hour. But belonging to a union is likely to lead to a substantial pay raise and superior benefits. African-American union members earn 14.7 percent more than their non-union peers. The union advantage for Latinos is even greater: 21.8 percent.

When unions thrive, everyone benefits. Wages, protections and labor standards for all working people rise. In New Jersey, my union has set up a training fund that provides young people a pathway to high-demand nursing careers. The result is not just good jobs, but a better health care system. In Minnesota, teachers’ unions speak up together to make sure their students get the resources they need to succeed.

Meanwhile, right to work isn’t just anti-union; it actually has its roots in the racial brutality of the Jim Crow South. The misleading term was coined by a Texas oil lobbyist named Vance Muse, an unapologetic white supremacist who thrived on pitting workers of different races against each other and feared that they would find solidarity with one another. “From now on,” Muse once said of unionization and workplace integration, “white women and white men will be forced into organization with black African apes whom they will have to call brother or lose their jobs.”

By contrast, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who made the connection between racial and economic justice central to his philosophy, saw through the “false slogan” of right-to-work. “Wherever these laws have passed,” he said, “wages are lower, job opportunities are fewer and there are no civil rights.” It was during a labor struggle—a strike by AFSCME sanitation workers in Memphis, Tenn.—that Dr. King was assassinated in April 1968. To mark the 50th anniversary, AFSCME has launched a grassroots education and mobilization campaign initiative called I AM 2018 to honor his courage and carry on the legacy of both Dr. King and the sanitation workers.

The Janus case and the pursuit of right-to-work is all about people with substantial money and power hoarding even more money and power for themselves. It is strong unions that create greater freedom and opportunity for everyone, helping working people of all races get a fair shake, a strong voice and a chance to achieve the American Dream.

Lee Saunders is president of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, a union of 1.6 million public service workers.