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Bill: Taking on Right to Work is not a suicide mission; it is strategically essential.

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Photo of a sign that says stay union strong above a red circle with diagonal red line in which are the letters RTW

“Right to Work,” since first authorized by the Taft-Hartley Act, has served as a slow-acting poison in the veins of the US working class. It has had a particularly devastating impact on workers in the South and Southwest, but has spread to other regions as part of an on-going right-wing effort to annihilate labor unions.

The following article was written in part for a convening of southern worker organizations and labor unions on the topic of expanding the right to organize in the right-to-work South.

Right to Work as a slow acting poison

“Right to Work,” since first authorized by the Taft-Hartley Act, has served as a slow-acting poison in the veins of the US working class. It has had a particularly devastating impact on workers in the South and Southwest, but has spread to other regions as part of an on-going right-wing effort to annihilate labor unions.

Right to Work has weakened the ability of organized labor to develop significant base areas in the South. If, hypothetically, Right to Work co-existed with a firm exclusion of the employer from interfering in a worker’s right to join or form a union, it might not be a particularly significant factor. But combined with vicious anti-unionism, Right to Work undermines the financial vitality of unions, including their abilities to contribute to other progressive social movements.

Organized labor has largely stayed away from attacking Right to Work, seemingly based on the assumption that it would either be a waste of time or that the obstacles would be insurmountable. Rarely has there been a serious discussion of the possible strategies that could be entertained to take it on and the constituencies that could conceivably be mobilized as part of such a campaign. This paper will make such an argument.

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No frontal assault–circumvent

It never makes sense to carry out a frontal assault on a formidable opponent even if there is an equivalent match of force. In the case of the labor movement we simply lack the strength to make a direct assault on Right to Work, at least as a solo target. Instead, labor–defined as including but not limited to trade unions–should consider reframing the entire issue. Borrowing from thinkers such as Barbara Ehrenreich and those associated with “American Rights At Work”, the struggle must be understood as a struggle for economic justice and rights at work. Think about it for a moment: most workers in the USA never stop to consider the rights that they automatically lose when they enter a workplace. They rarely think about the constraints on their Constitutional rights, such as freedom of speech and freedom of the press. Workers are actually entering into an authoritarian environment, one that they are told that they should expect and one that is in complete contradiction with the society in which they are supposed to believe.

A campaign for rights at work should begin with this basic issue of justice. It needs to raise questions in the minds of the public as to why authoritarianism should be acceptable under any conditions. That means thinking at the level of a variation on President Franklin Roosevelt’s proposed “Economic Bill of Rights” (from 1944), but one that focuses on the conditions of the workplace. Labor should be fighting for a democratic workplace, but it should be framed in essentially Constitutional terms. We should be demonstrating the paradox between what the Constitution says and what workers experience on a daily basis. FDR’s “Economic Bill of Rights”, while not directly applicable, gives one the sense of a jumping off point rather than an end point. The idea here is that FDR understood, better than most, that rights had to enter the economic sphere. The labor movement needs to be organized to make it so. It is in that context that we can actually take on Right to Work.

Our labor movement needs to use a rights at work framework as a means of mobilizing. First, we need to think in terms of active, mass campaigns for rights at work. We should be submitting national, state and local legislation as well as moving electoral initiatives to bring the matter before the public. We need to create “echo chambers” in the targeted states so that the media finds it difficult to avoid the issue and so that we can ‘mainstream’ the economic justice message.

Second, we need to think about potentially key constituencies. The African American community in the South and Chicanos in the Southwest should be seen as key groups. In order for this to happen, economic justice and social justice will need to be joined so that there is a clear understanding that these go hand in hand. These communities have a long history in the struggles for economic justice, so we should build upon that history, level of activism, and social organization.

Third, campaigns around rights at work can be an excellent means to inspire our bases to turn out on election day. This is something that the political Right has demonstrated time and again. Give people a reason to vote and they will turn out, at which time they may cast other important votes.

Fourth, a rights at work framework needs to be integrated into the totality of the work of the broad labor movement. For unions, this framework needs to be part of our basic message in organizing campaigns. Yes, of course we are organizing unions (and recruiting members) to improve their living standard. But unionization is also about democracy, both in the workplace and in the broader society. That means means highlighting for workers that unions stand against authoritarianism.

This framework needs to be integrated into the rest of the labor movement as well. Community-based worker organizations, e.g., worker centers, need to be involved in supporting worksite litigation that challenges authoritarian workplaces, supporting workplace organizing efforts, as well as play a central role in broader legislative and electoral initiatives that challenge the selfish-based, anti-union system of Right to Work and instead fight for a consistent rights at work approach.

Organized mischief

The political Right has, on any number of occasions, mounted initiative campaigns that have absolutely no chance of winning or in some cases a minimal chance of winning. Nevertheless they scare liberals and progressives to the point that these latter groups devote considerable resources to opposing the Right, resources that could be used elsewhere. Let’s borrow a page from their songbook and mount such campaigns as a means of creating organized mischief within terrain that they have, hitherto, believed to have been safe.

Here’s a military analogy. In 1942 the US launched a surprise air attack on several Japanese cities from the USS Hornet. Known since then as “Doolittle’s Raid,” this attack had limited military impact but psychologically it shattered the sense of invulnerability that the Japanese had (in the aftermath of Pearl Harbor) and demonstrated that the USA was able to strike the Japanese homeland. Doolittle’s raid provoked the Japanese to move on Midway, a very big mistake that many people believe cost the Japanese the war in the Pacific.

Organized mischief can provoke an opponent to panic, thereby undermining their own strategy. As part of a counter-offensive it can be a very effective approach. Therefore, it should be considered in the context of the longer term efforts to derail corporate America and to organize the South and the Southwest. Not only can we force our opponents to use badly needed resources to fight campaigns where they would otherwise not plan on doing so, but we can also build up our fighting capacity in those areas through the development of new alliances, a mix of tactics, and the growth of creative electoral work. Our aim should be to create significant base areas in Right to Work states which will ultimately lay the basis for our being able to ‘flip’ these states.

What are we waiting for?

This preface was written by Bill Fletcher, Jr., who is the Director of Field Services & Education for the American Federation of Government Employees. He is a Senior Scholar with the Institute for Policy Studies, the immediate past president of TransAfrica Forum, and the co-author of Solidarity Divided.


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