Moderated by Tom Sabulis
Unions are in the news, as calls continue for MARTA to privatize services and Michigan enacts right-to-work laws. Today, a Georgia union official writes about the benefits union workers bring to our state, while an expert from Emory University’s Goizueta Business School says right-to-work freedoms are needed for states to remain flexible in the new global economy.
Commenting is open below Ray Hill’s column.
By Charlie Flemming
As we approach the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom organized by A. Philip Randolph, vice-president of the AFL-CIO, we are reminded of Martin Luther King Jr’s 1961 fight against anti-unionism. “In our glorious fight for civil rights,” King said, “we must guard against being fooled by false slogans, as ‘right-to-work.’ It provides no ‘rights’ and no ‘works.’ Its purpose is to destroy labor unions and the freedom of collective bargaining.”
Despite his warning, the anti-union crusade continues as de-industrialization, globalization and offshore production have diminished wages and greatly reduced the availability of good jobs.
Unions, despite the premature proclamation of their death, remain relevant in the continued fight for fair wages, decent benefits and safe working conditions. What happened in Michigan this week is a perfect example of corporations and politicians interfering with the freedom of employees to work together in unions to improve their lives. It not only undermines our belief in a voice for all who work, it lowers living standards for all of us.
Now more than ever, we need to be unified to create jobs and restore the middle class across our country, because work connects us all. While Martin Luther King Jr. made the ultimate sacrifice standing with the sanitation workers of Memphis in 1968, the work he gave his life for continues.
U.S. workers in right-to-work states, for example, earn an average of $5,538 less a year than their counterparts in states where they have the right to collective bargaining. Every citizen is diminished by these inequities, because the reduced salaries represent missed tax revenues and reduced money circulating in the local and state economy.
Unions and collective bargaining also make a difference in workplace safety; right-to-work states report 50 percent more workplace deaths. The campaigns for fair wages, decent health care, and safe working conditions through labor contracts are a continuing responsibility of the American labor movement.
Union concerns extend beyond the needs of our members. What is often left unreported is how unions work with business, civil society and government to realize the democratic vision established by our country’s founders. During the 2012 Georgia state legislative session, the AFL-CIO championed freedom of speech by opposing SB469. The bill would have curtailed the right to picket, a traditional American tool for social justice advocacy. Who can forget the picketing Memphis sanitation workers with their “I Am a Man” placards?
Organized labor also benefits the larger society in other ways often invisible to the public. More than 900 Georgia AFL-CIO members assisted in recovery efforts following the devastation of Hurricane Sandy. Each year, AFL-CIO members in Atlanta and Georgia provide millions of dollars of charitable donations to the United Way and many other charitable organizations that assist Georgians in need.
Organized labor also advocates for the reintegration of our U.S. veterans into the economy through our “Helmets to Hardhats” initiative. The program pairs our transitioning military veterans with quality career training and employment opportunities within the construction industry.
In the coming legislative session, we will fight for the constitutional and economic rights of all Georgians. We’ll push for Buy Georgia, Buy American legislation, which gives preference to products made in Georgia and/or the United States. We will also work on mass transit issues, immigration rights, privatization, unemployment, corporate tax breaks, living wages and public education.
In sum, your dreams for a better state with ample employment opportunities are what drive our work every day. The Georgia AFL-CIO will continue fighting to realize the dreams of all Georgians.
Charlie Flemming is president of the Georgia AFL-CIO.
By Ray Hill
Right-to-work laws generate passionate arguments on both sides of the issue. All sorts of statistics are cited by those for and against these laws. Although econometrics was one of my Ph.D. fields, I don’t put much stock in any of this “evidence.” Too many factors contribute to an economy’s ability to create jobs and grow incomes to isolate the effect of right-to-work laws with much quantitative precision. I would rather consider right-to-work laws in a much broader context.
When we think of all the factors that contribute to an economy’s success, it seems clear to me that flexible labor markets are becoming more and more important in a world of globally connected business and rapid technological change.
The evidence is pervasive. A decade ago, Germany instituted a series of reforms designed to loosen up its very rigid labor market . Throughout the 1990s, Germany’s unemployment rate had been on par with France and much of the rest of Europe, and was consistently about twice that of the U.S. Ten years after these reforms, Germany has an unemployment rate half that of France but still pays its workers significantly higher wages. Indeed, Germany’s unemployment is now below that of the United States.
On this side of the Atlantic, we have the example of decades of migration of automobile manufacturing out of the highly unionized Midwest, where GM was required to pay its employees whether or not they actually worked. Even closer to home is last month’s bankruptcy of Hostess Brands (maker of Twinkies), brought on by incredibly rigid rules imposed by their unionized delivery workers.
Labor unions have made important contributions to promoting safer working conditions and other employee protections, most of which have now been written into our nation’s laws. However, unions also have the effect of reducing an economy’s flexibility and undercutting its ability to adapt to the rapid changes we experience in the global economy.
Unions’ ability to raise workers’ wages are a commonly cited argument in favor of right-to-work laws. High wages are great if you have a union job, but aren’t worth much if you are unemployed in a state with slow growth or shrinking industry. High wages are also not very useful when your company relocates to another state or outsources your job to another country. Even promises of job security are of little value when your company goes into bankruptcy, like Hostess, because it can’t compete.
By not requiring workers to finance unions as a condition of employment, Georgia’s right-to-work law helps to keep Georgia competitive. This is becoming more important every day since the rest of the world is moving in Georgia’s direction. In the U.S. as a whole, union membership as a percentage of the workforce fell last year to a level not seen since the 1930s. Private sector participation in unions fell below 7 percent.
Earlier this year, Indiana, in the old industrial heartland of America, became the 23rd state to adopt a right-to-work law, and just this week, Michigan became the 24th. Only in the government sector, shielded from competition, is union membership not shrinking. However, the budgetary problems of Greece (and Illinois!) should remind us that even governments are not immune from the inability of a unionized workforce to adapt to changing conditions.
Ray Hill is senior lecturer at Emory University’s Goizueta Business School.