OPINION: Who’s helped by ‘right to work’ laws?

We Americans cherish our rights: free choice of worship, free speech and inquiry, peaceful assembly and petition, bearing arms, security in our possessions.

What about the “right to work”? It sounds like something all honest working men and women would favor. Such was indeed the case in the early 19th century, in the form of the original “right to work” concept: the right to seek and hold gainful employment to maintain an adequate standard of living.

Before that, business owners had unilaterally set wages and working conditions on a take-it-or-leave-it basis, for their own benefit and with no regard for the well-being of workers. “Right to work” changed that, obliging employers to take into account the legitimate concerns of their employees. This helped lay the groundwork for collective bargaining for living wages, humane conditions and ethical treatment. The early incarnation of the right to work arguably culminated in the Wagner Act of 1935, which stipulated the kinds of union security agreements into which companies could enter.

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Since the late 1940s, however, the “right to work” label has been hijacked by business interests. It is no longer about people’s right to work for an adequate living standard. Rather, it is now shorthand for employers’ “right to work” their employees for lower pay and fewer benefits, under hazardous conditions and often unethical practices (such as paying some less than others for the same work, and firing them without cause to avoid paying top wage rates).

Even so, through the 1970s organized labor managed to attract enough members in large industries, working under "agency shop" agreements in more progressive states, to drive toward a higher general standard of living. Even non-union businesses were indirectly influenced to offer decent wages, benefits, and conditions, in order to compete for qualified workers. This gave rise to a large and robust consumer base, and the unprecedented prosperity generated by the resulting demand.

This is not to say that unionism has been faultless. For many years, some unions were associated with corrupt and criminal elements. In addition, labor demands eventually began pricing some workers out of their jobs. Long-term, though, unions deserve credit for the rise of the American blue-collar middle class.

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Then in the 1980s, ill-advised deregulation precipitated the savings-and-loan crisis, trickle-down economics churned up waves of recession, union busting weakened labor’s influence, and the economy transitioned to an era of eroding purchasing power and steady decline of the once-thriving middle class. Ultimately, all this has not only harmed the poor and middle classes, but ironically even threatens the wealthy today, the value of their investments precariously perched on inflated security prices, as the once solid support of earned income and consumer demand dissipates.

Now business lobbies are clamoring for "right to work" laws in Ohio — I'd say, the right to work for less — and even in local counties and cities. Such laws might well attract a certain class of business to set up shop here. But that class of business offers mainly the low-skill, low-pay, zero-benefit jobs one might find in the hinterlands — not the steady, well-paying jobs Ohioans need to support their families.

S.A. Joyce is one of our regular community contributors.

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