Union membership and power in the public sector have been steadily decreasing for decades, but recent court challenges and an influx of right-to-work laws are about to make a bad trend even worse. In this week’s Working-Class Perspective, John Russo argues that we must fight back by making both an economic and a moral case for collective bargaining.
For many years, public sector wages and benefits were lower than in the private sector. But with deindustrialization, economic restructuring, automation, and the establishment of public-sector collective bargaining, they have finally caught up. In some cases, government jobs are now worth more than private sector jobs, largely because good benefits compensate for lower wages. A 2015 study by the Economic Policy Institute found that while public workers with higher education earn less than similar private-sector workers, they receive better health benefits and pensions. But this applies only in states that don’t have RTW laws, as the EPI concludes:
“Only public employees in states with full collective bargaining make as much as their private-sector peers. In partial collective bargaining states, right-to-work states, and states that prohibit collective bargaining, public employees earn lower wages and compensation than comparable private sector employees, and this low compensation may impede state and local governments from recruiting and retaining highly skilled employees for their many professional and public safety occupations.”
No wonder, so many private sector employers have supported RTW legislation.
Beyond improving workers’ financial situations, unions also protect workers by articulating and enforcing labor standards involving wages, hours, overtime, and subcontracting, that are increasingly in short supply. This is especially important in low wage working-class jobs in the growing service economy. The National Employment Law Project found that the greatest loss in real wages since the end of the Great Recession has been in low-wage occupations such as in food preparation, janitors and cleaners, personal care aides, home health aides, and maids and housekeeping cleaners. It is in these occupations and sectors where the Bureau of Labor Statistics says the greatest job growth will be through 2022. Perhaps this is most important reason to fight both state and national RTW legislation.
Put differently, we should fight against cases like Friedrichs and RTW legislation on a moral basis. In Kentucky, the Catholic Bishop of Lexington made a strong moral argument against RTW legislation and support for labor unions. Bishop John Stowe said organized labor supports the common good, arguing that “unions need the support of the workers they represent. The falsely named ‘right to work’ legislation proposed does not in fact create new rights to work, but rather strives to limit the effectiveness and power of the unions.” Just like the recent wave of marches and growing protests that are being framed in moral terms, fighting RTW legislation is a moral imperative.
The Working-Class Perspectives blog is brought to you by our Visiting Scholar for the 2015-16 academic year, John Russo, and Georgetown University English professor, Sherry Linkon, who authored this post. It features several regular and guest contributors. Last year, the blog published 44 posts that were read over 128,000 times by readers in 189 countries.