“Right to Work” = Slave Labor Laws

Reprinted from Bridge City Militant No. 2

Bust the Union-Busters – We’ve Got the Power, Use It or Lose It!

“Right to Work” = Slave Labor Laws

Madison, Wisconsin, February 2011: over 100,000 unionists surround the state capitol to block Right to Work. A general strike was discussed, but local AFL-CIO tops called off protests in favor of electoral support for Democrats. Result: Wisconsin is a right-to-slave state. Labor’s got to play hardball to win! (Photo: Yuri Keegstra)
Madison, Wisconsin, February 2011: over 100,000 unionists surround the state capitol to block Right to Work. A general strike was discussed, but local AFL-CIO tops called off protests in favor of electoral support for Democrats. Result: Wisconsin is a right-to-slave state. Labor’s got to play hardball to win! (Photo: Yuri Keegstra)

A major attack is coming down on our unions. Last year, the Supreme Court took a case from a small group of right-wing ideologues, Friedrichs et al., against the California Teachers Association. The case seeks to crush the unions financially by overturning the “agency shop” rule. If the unelected life-term hangmen on the Supreme Court hand down a verdict for the business lobbies against the teachers union, it will give a green light to governments and bosses across the country to go on a union-busting, contract-shredding campaign against a weakened union movement. A decision is expected this spring.

Meanwhile, in Oregon, the anti-union “Freedom” foundation has brain-trusted and bankrolled a lawsuit that seeks to eliminate the agency shop for home care workers in SEIU Local 503. (“Freedom” for who? They are against our right to strike. Someone should remind them that the North won the Civil War.) And every election season in Oregon and Washington, as in states across the country, we see ballot initiatives that would implement these and other anti-union measures, going under the deceptive banner of “right to work.” In 2015, the initiatives were put on hold when the Oregon Supreme Court gave them a title that doesn’t jive with the slick marketing plans of the union-busting lawyers. But they’ll be back again next year.

2016 could be the year of a decisive struggle here and nationwide over union rights and union power. Union militants need to prepare our ranks for battle now. If the unions lose, we could be headed back to the bad old days before the mass struggles in the 1930s that founded the industrial unions in this country. Poverty wages, no job security, no health care (don’t count on ObamaCare – see “Obamacare Screws Workers, Windfall for Insurance Companies”), no retirement (they’re going after our Social Security, too), and unions reduced to ineffective guilds representing only the most privileged crafts.

But we can win. In every opinion poll, the big majority of workers say they would join a union if they had the chance. While the economic crash of 2008 never really ended for the working class, especially for black and Latino workers, the “recovery” is starting to make workers feel more confident about standing up for long-delayed raises and other improvements after decades of belt-tightening. Minimum-wage, non-union workers in fast food and retail are courageously rising up, even though the union leaders do little to actually organize them or defend their jobs. And although the established unions are much weaker than they ought to be, they still represent millions of workers in strategic industries that can shut this country down. We need to use that power before we lose it.

The union leaders know that this attack is coming. “Right to work” would put a big dent in dues collections. But as in everything else, these “labor lieutenants of the capitalist class” won’t lead the fight back. By relying on their Democratic Party “allies” and on desperate attempts to play the media spin game in the capitalist press (they call this “education”), while opposing any militant labor action, they are giving up before the fight even begins. We can’t let this happen.

It’s true that the Democrats are happy to take millions in campaign contributions from union political action committees, and the “Right to Work” hard-liners are mostly Republicans. But the Democrats won’t fight the union-busters. On the contrary, they are a capitalist union busting party just as much as the Republicans, and if the “Right to Work” holy warriors win their lawsuits or referendums, Democrats from City Hall to the White House will enforce the new laws against the workers. Who called out the Coast Guard against the locked out ILWU on the Columbia river last year? Democratic President Obama, endorsed by the ILWU leaders. Who is gearing up for another showdown with the Chicago teachers union? Obama’s right hand man, Democratic mayor Rahm Emanuel, whose cops are famous for assassinating black kids and running a CIA-style torture center at Homan Square. Who will be de-funding and attacking public workers in Oregon, from Laborers to teachers to SEIU, if Friedrichs wins? Labor’s phony “friend,” Democrat governor Kate Brown.

San Francisco newspaper Bloody Thursday ILWU
The capitalists will always try to chain the workers with anti-union laws. If we play by their rules, we’re bound to lose, but militant workers action can win. July 1934: the National Guard is deployed in San Francisco against an “illegal” general strike. Three strikers are gunned down, but the strike gives birth to the powerful International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU).

Union leaders say that our ties to the Democrats give us “influence,” but it’s really the other way around. Look at what happened in Wisconsin in 2011. The Republican governor, Scott Walker, tried to ram through a “Right to Work” law. Tens of thousands of union supporters surrounded the state capitol in Madison, physically blocking the meetings from going forward. The local Central Labor Council even talked about a general strike, which was possible and needed to kill the anti-union law. But at the last minute, the “labor lieutenants of the capitalist class” opted for an electoral approach, a petition to recall Scott Walker, presumably in favor of a Democratic successor. The workers were demobilized, and they lost. Now Wisconsin and neighboring Michigan, the birthplace of the mighty United Auto Workers, are “right to work” states. In Michigan, the union leaders’ usual “smart” tactics of lobbying and begging failed completely, and “right to work” was imposed without a fight.

The policies of the union tops fail because they are based on class collaboration with one wing of the party of capitalist property, the Democrats. But what we’re facing is a bipartisan, one-sided class war as Wall Street seeks to squeeze ever-higher profits from our labor and eliminate “unnecessary” expenses like education, health care and basic health, safety and environmental protections. To fight “right to work” we need to prepare to wage the class war. It’s a struggle that labor can win because it’s a struggle of millions of working people, without whose labor “not a single wheel would turn,” against a tiny class of parasites who produce nothing but misery and oppression for the vast majority of humanity.

“Right to Work” seeks to end the “agency shop.” The agency shop itself is a rotten compromise that was imposed on the unions in exchange for anti-labor laws that outlawed the closed union shop. Under the agency shop, workers at an organized company or state agency don’t have to join the union, but they do have to pay a portion of the union dues, often called “fair share fees” or “agency fees,” and everyone gets the benefits and wages that the union negotiates from the employer. The big majority of workers do sign up for the union, because they understand that it stands for their rights and welfare. But this arrangement still weakens the union, and encourages the natural tendency of the union bureaucrats to run the union like an “independent,” “neutral” welfare agency rather than the fighting self-defense organization of the workers.

The other arrangement that leaves the unions vulnerable to the “right to work” attack is that most unions have allowed the bosses – private companies or government agencies – to collect their dues through paycheck deductions. We never should have allowed the class enemy to get their hands on the finances of our organizations. Dues should be collected directly by the union. This is not just an elementary self-defense measure, it’s a boost for union democracy and a check on out-of-touch bureaucracy in our unions.

Above all, every union needs to begin preparing to fight the coming union-busting onslaught in the streets and in the workplaces. We need to form committees in every local and every workplace to prepare to tie up metro Portland like the workers in Wisconsin shut down Madison in 2011 – but Wisconsin shows that we can’t let the fight be diverted into the dead end of electoral support for the Democrats or any capitalist party. We need a class struggle workers party: not just a vote-getting apparatus but a party to organize and lead the fight for the oppressed and exploited, using the powerful weapons that our class has.

To defend the unions where we have them, and to encourage workers at non-union shops to go union, we must fight for the union shop no matter what the bosses’ laws or the bosses’ courts say. Workers fought and died to have a collective organization against the bosses, because as individuals we are “free” just the way the “Freedom Foundation” would have it: free to work under the bosses whim, or free to quit and starve. We shouldn’t allow freeloaders and suckers who’ve been duped by anti-union propaganda to undermine our power.

At the 2015 Oregon AFL-CIO convention, class-struggle militants brought this perspective to the floor in the form of a resolution to fight Right to Work. As expected, it was shot down by the union leaders, who are planning to lose this crucial battle. The labor bureaucrats who sit on top of Oregon unions are so loyal to their Democratic Party masters that they even endorsed a poverty wage ballot initiative designed to undercut efforts to get a $15 minimum wage initiative on the ballot, then, in an act of disgusting hypocrisy, they “endorsed” the $15 initiative too. Thanks a lot. If workers want a big raise we can’t rely on the rigged electoral game or the sellout union leaders. We are going to have to fight for it the class-struggle way, by unionizing low wage workers and shutting down businesses that don’t pay our minimum wage demand with solid strike action.

The perspective we outlined at the AFL-CIO convention garnered strong support from rank and file delegates, ranging from teachers to laborers and postal workers. The leaders of organized labor have learned nothing and are preparing to sell out big time, with disastrous consequences for the working class. They need to be replaced by a class-struggle leadership. Every step we take to prepare for a real fight against “right to work” union busting is a step to rebuild workers power and organize the unorganized. CSWP supporters will continue our efforts to defend our unions, and we urge fellow union members to join us. ■

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