The right’s “right to work” onslaught

February 22, 2017

Labor is staring down the barrels of many guns at the same time, writes Joe Richard.

REPUBLICAN REPS. Steve King of Iowa and Joe Wilson of South Carolina introduced a national right-to-work bill in Congress on February 1, which would outlaw the ability of unions in the private sector to collect representation (or "fair share") fees from non-members.

Feeling the wind in their sails with Republican control of all branches of the federal government and a state-level offensive in full swing, King and Wilson taste blood in the water. Four days later, Sen. Rand Paul introduced a Senate version of this misnamed "right-to-work" legislation.

A national right-to-work (for-less) bill has long been a dream of the Republican Party mainstream, with the likes of House Speaker Paul Ryan presumably including it at the top of their Christmas wish list every year. Now, with Donald Trump in the White House, the first 100 days have turned into open season on organized labor.

A few days before, the same House Republicans introduced a bill to repeal the Davis-Bacon Act, which mandates that "prevailing" wages--that is, union wages--must be paid on federal construction projects.

Donald Trump with House Speaker Paul Ryan
Donald Trump with House Speaker Paul Ryan (Caleb Smith | Office of the Speaker of the House)

TRUMP AND Vice President Mike Pence have met with various union leaders, including AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka before Trump's inauguration and the presidents of different building trades and manufacturing unions like the Teamsters and the Laborers afterward. Trump apparently tried to enlist them to support his ambitious program of oil pipeline construction and even the building of the infamous border wall along the U.S.-Mexico border.

In a telling interview, one of the union presidents reported that in all of the eight years of the Obama administration, none of them had ever been invited to the White House to meet with Obama or any key Democratic leaders.

In truly stomach-turning displays of cynical opportunism, Teamsters President James Hoffa Jr. and the Laborers' Terry O'Sullivan greeted Trump's pipeline fanaticism with the claim: "It is Finally Beginning to Feel Like a New Day for America's Working Class."

But more and more, it looks like these union officials got played. The Trump administration recently hired Geoffrey Burr, former chief lobbyist for the Associated Builders and Contractors (ABC) to join his "Beachhead Team" at the Department of Labor.

ABC is the ancient nemesis of the building trades unions and for decades has supported various campaigns to rid construction sites of union labor, including repeal of the Davis-Bacon Act.

If Trump wants to placate a section of the labor movement with construction jobs and infrastructure spending, it won't be nearly so tempting if it comes with a full-scale assault on the last legislative props for the private-sector union movement.

Meanwhile, state-level anti-labor initiatives are surging forward. In just the last few months, more states have started the process of going "right-to-work," as one Republican legislature after another goes in for the kill: New Hampshire, Missouri, Kentucky, and more.

The purpose of these state-by-state initiatives is to further tip the balance of forces in favor of employers and anti-union organizations: Now that a majority of states are right-to-work, what nationwide opposition can really be mustered against a federal law that won't change anything for large numbers of states?

In the public sector, each state sets its own collective bargaining laws, so a national right-to-work law would have to come through a Supreme Court decision. This means the timeline for national right-to-work legislation in the public sector is delayed somewhat by the appointment process that any Trump nominee will go through.

Trump's first nominee, Neil Gorsuch, promises to be a total reactionary. Any illusion that a Trump Supreme Court pick won't want to destroy the labor movement is a fallacy.

Anti-union forces like the National Right to Work Foundation already have several handpicked cases that they're maneuvering to send right to the Supreme Court, after Scalia's death last year produced a status quo ruling in the Friedrichs case--which sought to overturn the legal precedent that requires non-members to be assessed fees by the union representing their bargaining unit. Janus v. AFSCME or Berman v. Public Employees Federation are similar cases and will almost certainly produce a negative ruling for the public-sector labor movement, so long as Trump can get a reactionary on the Supreme Court.

SOME IN the labor movement have responded by burying their heads in the sand or adopting the "hope and pray" strategy.

In a truly bizarre piece of advice for the workers' movement, a recent article published in In These Times told readers that the Republicans' "national right-to-work bill is a smokescreen" and that unions "should not fall into the trap of fighting a National Right to Work Act head-on."

Like a real-world Dolores Umbridge working to disband Dumbledore's Army, this is at best disarming to our side at the exact moment when Voldemort is gathering his forces for a final assault on the last citadels of union power.

Others have taken a more proactive role and are actively organizing and marshaling protest against the Trump administration. Union members turned out by the thousands across the country at local demonstrations and at the Women's March on Washington and other cities, despite a disorganized and politically confused semi-involvement by national unions.

As the last few weeks have also shown, there are clearly real possibilities for resistance, and the labor movement has a major role to play in the resistance against the Trump administration.

The overwhelming attacks on so many different sections of the working class creates an opening for our side to make arguments about connecting trade union struggles with other fights--and also for us to push our unions in the direction of alliances and solidarity with other social movements.

Through organizing rank-and-file union members against Trump's agenda, unions can begin to reestablish their presence at the level of the individual workplace--and in doing so lay the groundwork for their own survival and even potential growth under a national right-to-work regime.

When Indiana went right to work in 2012, workers at the Jeffboat Shipyard in Jeffersonville, Indiana, kept their union intact with a strong network of aggressive shop stewards and smart, hard-hitting job actions. Barely a handful of workers quit paying dues.

Workers will be loyal to a union that plays a strong role at the workplace and demonstrates the value of being a union member every day.

Unfortunately, it appears as though most major national and local unions will double down on their already failed strategies of collaboration with management, concessionary bargaining and deepening their relationships with the Democratic Party in an attempt to retake the Senate in 2018.

Time will tell what the future holds, but union members and activists need to start preparing now to stand a chance of surviving in the era of Trump.

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