In an effort to consolidate power, a group of extremist Republican lawmakers are running roughshod over worker rights, deploying tactics similar to those used to block a number of African Americans, Latinos, and millennials from voting. In recent years, attacks on voting and union rights have largely been focused in the states. But now that Republicans control both chambers of Congress and the White House, federal action on both fronts is becoming increasingly more likely.
Much like the right to vote or assemble peacefully, the right of workers to join together as a group to bargain collectively should be considered a fundamental right. In fact, the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights includes the right of workers to form and join unions. Even President Ronald Reagan once said the right to belong to a union is “one of the most elemental human rights.”
The ability to join unions and bargain collectively helps equalize power between workers and corporations. This, in turn, not only helps raise wages, but also makes democracy work. Union members are much more likely to vote, take political action, and join other groups compared to non-union counterparts. Unions serve as an alternative source of power that workers control — neither the government nor the wealthy, which is why countries that want to bolster their democracies typically strengthen their labor movements. For instance, this is what South Africa did after apartheid and what Germany and Japan did after World War II with American support. As President Harry Truman argued: “free and vital trade unions are a strong bulwark against the growth of totalitarian movements.” Not surprisingly, authoritarian leaders commonly go after unions.
Voter suppression efforts don’t directly outlaw voting, but, rather, try to make it much harder to vote, especially for key groups, through a wide range of tactics such as restrictive voter identification laws, reduced voting hours, and moved polling places. Similarly, anti-union attacks don’t make unions illegal, but, rather, make it exceedingly difficult to join them through a wide range of measures. Such measures go far beyond so called “right-to-work” laws, which force unions to provide services for people that “free ride,” or Wisconsin-style attacks on the rights of public sector workers to bargain collectively.
Indeed, the cynical creativity of the attacks on voting and unions knows almost no bounds. Texas voter ID laws, for example, allow individuals to use gun permits as voter identification, but not college student IDs. This distinction clearly benefits a group of voters that leans Republican, while making it hard for a group of voters that tend to lean Democratic. Meanwhile, Michigan, North Carolina, Wisconsin, Iowa, and Alabama have banned at least some unions from using the state’s payroll system to collect dues, while welcoming insurance companies to use their payroll system. This makes operations easy for corporate political actors, but harder for worker organizations. Several states exempt more politically conservative unions — such as police and firefighter unions — from their anti-union policies. And others, such as Wisconsin and Iowa, require public sector workers represented by unions regularly to go through a process (every year or before a contract expires) to indicate whether they want to continue to be represented by the union. But there is no comparable automatic process for non-union workers to indicate if they would like to form a union.
State-based attacks on worker rights have metastasized since the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision gave corporations free reign to fund these attacks, according to University of Oregon professor Gordon Lafer. These include not only decimating union rights, but also blocking worker’s access to the courts and preventing cities from, for example, raising the minimum wage. Since the 2016 election, the pace and scope of such attacks have ramped up dramatically, with Kentucky, Missouri, and Iowa passing major anti-union laws in 2017.
Now attempts to enact these kinds of policies nationwide are gaining steam. Republicans in Congress recently introduced a national Right-to-Work bill — a policy that Donald Trump has said he “loves.” But that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Republicans have already introduced a variety of anti-union bills since this new Congress started, including bills to weaken enforcement of workers’ collective rights and repeal prevailing wage laws. Other potential threats under the new administration include proposals to restrict the union rights of federal employees and to overturn key decisions made by the National Labor Relations Board that made the union election process less subject to employer delays and enabled workers to bargain with companies that have control over contracted-out workers. A particularly perverse proposal that is likely to be re-introduced soon would require over 50 percent of all workers support the union, rather than 50 percent of workers that vote in a union election. This would effectively count non-voters as votes against unionization.
With voting rights, there is some hope the courts can serve as a check. This is what happened, for example, when a court struck down a North Carolina law for targeting “African-Americans with almost surgical precision.” But, unfortunately, the courts are largely a threat to union rights. Thus the Supreme Court appears poised to deliver a gut punch to unions by banning public sector unions from collecting fair-share fees for bargaining costs.
In this environment, the path forward starts with all workers and their allies recognizing each of these individual attacks on unions for what they are: a blatant political power grab that threatens basic rights and our democracy. The broad progressive movement needs to rally, protest, and demand that their elected officials protect union rights, as they are already doing for voting rights and other rights that are currently at risk. States where progressives have power must seek to expand voting rights as well as worker rights.
Ultimately, progressives must pass bold new federal legislation to update voting protections as well as modernize labor law, protecting worker rights and delivering higher wages as well as greater economic productivity.
David Madland is the author of Hollowed Out: Why The Economy Doesn’t Work Without a Strong Middle Class, and a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress Action Fund.