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Right to Work & Union Organizing 1/22/2013
Working your Way through the Facts and Myths
By: Ricardo Torres

Several historically pro-union states have recently passed or are actively considering Right to Work legislation. Read on to find out how these changes affect union organizing strategies and may affect you and your company.

While 2012 was coming to an end, Michigan became the 24th Right to Work state.  Michigan State Governor Rick Snyder solidified his position on Right to Work by stating the Bill is “pro-employee”, while the unions continue to demonize Right to Work and portray such laws as being “anti-union” or “union-busting” pieces of legislation.

Right to Work state politicians talk about how they are making the state more inviting for business and investments by having Right to Work laws in place. Both sides have data to prove their positions, but who is correct?

The business groups talk about how they care about the workers’ rights and demonstrate concern for their workers’ right to choose whether or not they want to pay union dues. Most business owners support Right to Work and tout it as a victory for union members who now have a choice whether or not to pay union dues.  Remember, it is illegal to force employees to belong to a union in the United States, but it is not illegal in closed shop states to force employees to pay union dues as part of a condition of employment.

Wouldn’t it be a nicer world if all sides could simply provide factual statements on the issue of Right to Work vs. Closed Shop states?

Here are some simple facts from sources that are neither pro-union nor pro-employer. The following facts come from the Bureau of Labor and Statistics and the Bureau of Economic Analysis (when accounting for the average cost of living in each state):

  • From 1993 – 2009, Job growth in Right to Work states grew by nearly 38%, while job growth in Closed Shop states grew by less than 20%
  • From 1993 – 2009, Manufacturing jobs in Right to Work states grew by nearly 19%, while manufacturing jobs in Closed Shop states grew by less than 8.5%
  • From 2000 – 2010, total compensation growth in Right to Work states grew by 11.3%, while total compensation growth in Closed Shop states grew by 0.7%
  • In 2010, on average, workers in Right to Work States had $2,000 more in disposable income than workers in Closed Shop states. (Remember that all employees are paying union dues in these Closed Shop states and this is accounted for in this statement).

During the last minute blitz in a lame duck session to push Right to Work through in Michigan, the media went through the same old song-and-dance of listing reasons why unions are on their last legs and displayed a flood of past union successes. As the unions continue to protest Right to Work in Michigan, we see more and more ads aimed at further demonizing Right to Work as the world’s end, all the while painting a picture of doom and gloom as Michigan workers claim they will start receiving third world wages. It is a very good possibility that we will see a few large strikes in the near future, not necessarily because the union was planning on crippling a company or two (although they may have had that plan in mind), but to further demonstrate that they are still the powerhouse. This is all happening as the everyday citizen sits in the corner waiting for the next bell to ring. Most regular citizens do not understand the real dynamics of what is happening around them with the whole Right to Work vs. Closed Shop war. To them, it is starting to sound like a broken record.

Unions are proving to be a thorn in the side of the politicians who pushed the vote through. We have been and will continue to hear and see the anger, screaming, tears and vows to seek revenge.  This, of course, is portrayed by the union as a devotion to the “working man”.

What does all of this really mean for the unions and their efforts to organize in Right to Work states? Make no mistake about it, the unions do not want to fight workers for the collection of their dues, but they will certainly use the passage of Right to Work laws in Michigan and Indiana as a “call to arms” to their membership. Union leaders know how to play the “us against them” game. They have already started pushing for the passage of an expedited election cycle and will adapt their strategy to push it further in 2013. During 2013, we will see an emphasis on organizing new rank and file members, including passing state constitutional amendments making union membership a constitutional right as they tried in Michigan in 2012. The emotional topic of immigration reform will also be exploited to solidify support from Hispanic workers (as well as targeting industries that typically employ them) as their “Ace in the hole” in the effort to reduce election timelines to between 5 to 15 days. Big Labor has many things on their plate this year and they will not see Right to Work as a barrier towards their goal of growing their membership.

When I helped to assemble the training curriculum for the Organizer’s Institute (also known as the George Meany National Labor College), we spent considerable time addressing organizing strategies around Right to Work laws. While some may think organizing in a Right to Work state is a challenge for the union organizer; it is, in fact, often the opposite and not complicated at all. In some situations, organizing in a Right to Work state is easier because the law takes away one of the major union avoidance talking points from management’s arsenal. The union organizer simply alters his talking points to say: “If we don’t get you more than you are making now then stop paying union dues! If we don’t perform year in and year out then we will go away if the members aren’t happy and paying dues! You don’t need to decertify the union because the members have full control. But, by all means, give us a chance to prove ourselves to you.” The union organizer gives them the perception that they control their own future when it comes to being unionized and that the financial risk of joining a union is negligible.

A whole new set of union strategies come to the fore after workers vote to be represented by the union. Now it is time to ensure that the members keep paying their dues.

In April of 1999, Newport News Shipbuilding Company, being represented by the Steelworkers, in Newport News, VA went on strike with close to 9,200 workers walking out. Within this group of employees, about 17% of the workers had made the choice to remain non-members and/or not pay union dues. The Steelworker strike was hampered because most of the non-union workers crossed the picket line. After the strike, the Steelworkers International worked with the local union to try and implement a process to bring the non-union workers back in line, as well as setting the stage for a long-term effort to pressure other union locals in Right to Work states to adopt similar programs.

I was one of the union officials charged with putting together a process that would have enough flexibility that it would be easy for all locals to make the adaptation while still being customizable for an individual local’s membership base. The program we put into place was dubbed the “Adopt a Lost Co-Worker” program.  It was a closely monitored plan to intimidate and embarrass non-paying unit employees at Newport News. We deployed a team to present the plan to the local leadership who had to have complete buy-in to make it successful. We had local officers print a story in their local newsletter talking about the importance and seriousness of the problem when workers do not pay dues while taking advantage of the dues-paying members. We defined the program as an “educational” process to disguise our true intent and to offset any NLRB charges or complaints. We had everyone’s name printed in the union local’s newsletter if they were not paying their dues and invited employees to choose and “adopt” their long lost brother or sister. Each non-paying member became a personal target for a dues-paying member. We held raffles for every dues-paying worker who had “persuaded” someone to sign a dues check off card. Names and photos of the people who did not pay dues were posted on the union bulletin boards in their areas. Additionally, we established a “hit team”. The hit team was directed to give intensive and enhanced attention to workers who were not paying dues and purposely create a hostile work environment. This is where the real work was done. The non-paying workers felt extreme pressure from their co-workers. They had their job assignments messed up, were not allowed to participate in activities outside of work (baseball teams, bowling leagues etc.) and were tagged as traitors and scabs. Going to work became a dreadful and miserable experience for them. Once they finally came back and agreed to pay their dues the union made a big deal about it and welcomed them back with great fanfare to reinforce that they were back in their “family’s” good graces. After one year, we increased union dues participation to 92% of the total workforce.

This “Adopt a Lost Coworker” strategy worked while I was with the union and is still used successfully by unions in Right to Work states today. Although the fact-based numbers provided by the Bureau of Labor and Statistics and the Bureau of Economic Analysis show that workers are better off in Right to Work States, unions will continue to put their spin on the facts and they will continue to organize. Organizing will continue to be the easy part for the unions. The hard part is ensuring that dues are paid across the nation, so the same tactics and strategies that are used in established Right to Work states will soon be coming to Michigan and any other states that follow suit.

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