Right to a Level Playing Field

There’s supposed to be no such thing as a free lunch — or, by extension, a free ride. We’re all supposed to pay our way, to provide compensation for goods and the services we use.

This is a core economic principle, especially among libertarians in the Milton Friedman mode. Friedman, in his attacks on taxation, paints the notion that the costs of government can be contained to business or the 1 percent as the “myth of the free lunch.” Businesses, he says, are a collection of people with common interests — customers, stockholders, workers — and that the practical effect of taxing business really is to tax these interested stakeholders.

I don’t want to argue the legitimacy or accuracy of this view. For the sake of argument, let’s assume Friedman is correct. Conservatives certainly operate as if it is — at least when it comes to taxes. The problem is that they are being selective in its application, defending corporations and hedge fund managers from the free lunch, but subjecting unions to workers who want a free ride.

They’ve done this by pushing so-called “right-to-work” legislation, which would allow workers to opt out of unions and avoid paying union due — a direct challenge to how unions have historically operated. Missouri is the latest battleground (Gov. Jay Nixon [D] vetoed a “right-to-work” law, though the state Senate was expected to attempt an override in September). The assumption, at least among supporters of the labor movement, is that all workers in a union shop should either be forced to join the union or to pay a fee equivalent to what it costs to represent the worker. The reason for this is that all workers in the shop get the benefit of representation, even if they are not union members.

Their wages and health benefits are set according to a scale created through negotiations between the business and the union — as are their work rules, disciplinary procedures (including the right to representation in such proceedings), holiday schedule and vacation arrangements. Individual nonunion workers are not required, in most cases, to negotiate these things on their own. The union shop arrangement acknowledges this and acknowledges that these benefits come with a cost to the union.

“Right-to-work” laws upend this arrangement, allowing workers to opt out of paying dues. About half of the states already have laws like this on the book, including union strongholds like Michigan and Wisconsin. Advocates for these laws — i.e., business lobbyists — say they are about freedom of choice, about allowing workers to make their own decisions about their pay checks. The reality, however, is that they are designed to strip money from unions and weaken them as playing-field levelers.

Unions, in this paradigm, are painted as a massive and faceless interest group. It is bug bureaucracy or a liberal plot. The union’s essential function — as an equalizer of power between workers and capital — is elided. Bringing workers together with a unified voice increases the power of the labor side of the equation, allows work and workers to match the influence of money. Without unions, the equation shifts. Individual workers are left to do battle on their own with few tools or ammunition.

Businesses, then, would hold all the cards, which will allow them to drive down wages, impose harsh work conditions and fire employees at will. Critics of this view will argue that it is hyperbole, that good employers will continue to provide good pay and benefits to ensure they can attract the best workers. That, no doubt, is true for some mostly higher-skill workplaces.

But we are already witnessing a decades-long de-unionization of the American workforce—union levels are significantly lower today than they were as recently as the early 1980s — and the attendant wage stagnation and benefits erosion that come with it. Further weakening unions will only accelerate this trend.

The reality is that the treatment of low-wage workers here and overseas, the outsourcing of all kinds of jobs and the move to contingent or temp work offer a glimpse into what a world without strong unions might look like.

Hank Kalet is a poet and journalist in New Jersey. His email is; Twitter, @newspoet41 hank.kalet.

From The Progressive Populist, October 15, 2015

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