On Jan. 4, the Indiana legislature opened up its first session with labor packing the house to say NO to the right-wing plans to pass a reactionary ‘right to work’ law.
This comes on the heels of nearly a year of record-breaking labor mobilization in Indiana that succeeded in defeating some of the worst anti-worker legislation proposed by the right. This week, labor again showed that the political arena will not be surrendered to big business without a fight.
A ‘right to work’ that the U.S. refuses to ratify
Shouldn’t everyone be for establishing the right to work: the right to a job and a livelihood instead of unemployment, poverty and misery? Probably 99 percent of the planet would be for that right if they ever got the chance to vote on it.
However, the 1 percent that is not for it includes the rich and powerful who control the U.S. government. In 1966, the U.N. General Assembly passed an ‘International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights’. This document contains the most basic principles of labor rights, including the right to a job as well as the right to health, education and an adequate standard of living.
While 160 countries have ratified it, the United States has not. In fact the U.S. has ratified only two of the International Labor Organization’s eight fundamental conventions, whereas 135 countries have ratified all of them. Among those that the United States refuses to ratify are the principles that workers should have the right to organize or freely associate and the right to be free from discrimination.
A ‘right to work for less’ law
The ‘right to work’ law being proposed in Indiana does not establish a right to a job. It is not about increasing ‘rights’ or ‘work’. Its purpose is to weaken unions. If all the workers in a company are in the union, the bargaining power of the union is greater. This law will make it possible for workers to not be in the union and not pay dues, while at the same time taking advantage of the wages and benefits that the union is able to negotiate.
Currently, 22 states have ‘right to work’ laws. A recent study has shown that such laws result in annual wages that are $1,500 below the wages paid to workers in other states. Insurance and pension benefits are also more likely to be less or non-existent. On the other hand, the study showed that the law does not increase the number of jobs. (EPI.org, Jan. 3)
In 2001, reactionaries pushed and passed a ‘right to work’ law in Oklahoma on the basis that it would create jobs. Wal-Mart put $500,000 into the campaign. After it passed, Oklahoma workers found out that the law did not lead to more good jobs. Within weeks, Conoco and Phillips merged and within months they moved their headquarters from Oklahoma to Houston. In 2006, GM closed its Oklahoma City plant.
The ‘right to work’ law in Kansas is not saving the jobs of the Boeing workers in Wichita. After promising last year to create 7,500 new jobs based on a new Air Force contract, the company announced on Jan. 4 that they were instead closing their factory and laying off 2,160 workers.
Workers fighting for power
The issues driving most contract battles and most strikes are wages and benefits. These are immediate needs, and gains won are immediate.
For new labor organizers, or for those trying to figure out the dynamics of social change, it might seem unlikely that workers would put their jobs on the line in order to win greater power or greater leverage to get more in the future, particularly when times are tough. Everyone wants more power, but the current ‘common wisdom’ of some in labor is that people will not fight for more distant and abstract ideas.
In reality, since 1805 unions have clearly understood the importance of all workers being in the union – a closed shop. A general strike by Black and white workers fought for this in 1892 in New Orleans, but they were defeated by armed force.
In 1919 when 350,000 steelworkers went on strike, the main issue was to win a closed shop. Worker communists led the fight, but it was defeated by military and political force. In Indiana, federal troops were called in and on Oct. 6, 1919, General Wood declared martial law in Gary and two other cities to smash the strike. He banned public meetings and declared that any veterans wearing uniforms would be put in jail. This is the same General Wood who in 1903 oversaw a massacre of 600 mostly unarmed Filipino Moro villagers in the Philippines when he led the occupation/martial law there.
A strike won a closed shop at Ford in 1941, and the right was won later in other auto, steel and airplane factories. As it became the norm, better wages were won, and for the first time pensions and health insurance were won.
1947, 1957 and 2012
In the years immediately after World War II, millions of workers went on strike. There were even general strikes in Oakland, Calif., and in Rochester, N.Y. Troops were mutinying in order to demand immediate release from the military. And when they rejoined the labor force they added an even more determined spirit to the demands for rights and power on the job.
This shook the system to its core. The most powerful sections of the capitalist class demanded that labor be put in its place and that legal shackles be used to limit what labor could do. They demanded that the heart of the labor movement, its most activist and visionary leaders, the communists, be thrown out of the movement and, where possible, into jail. This was the essence of the 1947 Taft Hartley Act. At its core was a provision that allowed states to pass ‘right to work’ laws.
It was around 1947 that many states passed laws banning strikes by public employees. Such bans exist in 24 states. But they did not stop there. Twelve states passed laws allowing the state to take over private businesses, especially utilities, in order to stop strikes.
Reeling from these blows and eventually accommodating to this new system of control, newer labor leaders focused more on winning pennies than power. The effects of this are a principal reason that the labor movement is in the weakened shape it is in today.
The powers that be did not rest with the passage of Taft Hartley. They pushed for more laws, and they brought in more tanks when workers resisted. The government’s response to the key 1955 strike by workers in New Castle, Ind., is an example of the sort of military repression used. In 1957, the right wing was able to get the Indiana legislature to pass a ‘right to work’ law. As a result, a union shop provision in a 1958 autoworkers contract could not be implemented in that state.
In 1958, the Ohio Chamber of Commerce pushed a ‘right to work’ initiative onto the ballot. They were backed by big money as well as the governor, senators and other national figures. But the labor movement responded with a huge grass roots campaign that was built on alliances in the community, particularly the Black community. Labor helped register thousands of African American voters, and together they defeated the initiative by a margin of 63-to-37 percent.
In 1963, as the intensity of the Civil Rights movement lifted many struggles, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled against a company that tried to bar a United Auto Workers union contract from making non-members pay their fair share in dues. Two years later, in this new environment, Indiana repealed the ‘right to work’ law.
The struggle today
For some time, the struggle has gone back and forth between assault by the bosses and resistance from labor. In 2003, the governor of Kentucky rescinded public employee bargaining rights won only a year before. In 2005, the governors of Indiana and Missouri signed executive orders ending collective bargaining for about 50,000 workers in those states. In 2011, Oklahoma ended even more bargaining rights. But the struggle heated up in Wisconsin, and labor won in Ohio last year.
On Nov. 30, 2011, New Hampshire labor mobilized to stop a final effort to pass ‘right to work’ there. Labor can win the struggle in Indiana if national leaders mobilize workers around the country to come to Indiana and fight alongside our brothers and sisters there.
Workers in Indiana need more rights, not less.
Two years ago, the Evansville, Ind., Whirlpool plant closed as the company sent its capital to Mexico. Last October, Whirlpool announced that it was closing its Arkansas plant ending 5,000 jobs there. The capitalist version of ‘right to work’ is not the answer to the problems facing workers in Indiana or anywhere else.
What we need is recognition of the human right to a job and a decent life. We need a real right to work and real power on the job and in society.
This article first appeared in Liberation News, the newspaper of the US based Party of Socialism and Liberation.
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This post was written by Jeff Bigelow