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rtw legislation is anti-union, not pro-worker

November 17, 2013

Right-to-work legislation aimed specifically at public sector unions is on track to hit Oregon ballots next November. While the term ‘right-to-work’ may sound positive, it actually represents a way for corporations and pro-business advocates to further weaken already beleaguered labour unions by cutting off their primary source of funding while at the same time forcing them, via existing state law, to represent workers who opt out of paying any union dues or ‘fair share’ fees.

As with any other kind of organization that provides benefits to its members, labour unions depend on a steady source of funds to function effectively. Workers who work at a unionized workplace pay a small percentage of each check to the union since they benefit from the terms of the union-negotiated contract said union has worked out with the employer. That money goes directly towards funding union representation in the workplace, as well as political advocacy in the broader political sphere if authorized by the worker.

By allowing workers to opt out of paying dues while still mandating that the union represent them, you essentially drain the union of one of its most vital resources. In fact, this very argument is made by the Chamber of Commerce, a strong proponent of right to work legislation across the country, when demanding members of the organization to pay dues or else lose access to the benefits they provide. In a letter responding to the Owensboro Building and Construction Trades Council’s inquiry about continued membership benefits without paying dues, for example, the local Chamber of Commerce wrote that “the vast majority of the Chamber’s annual revenues come from member dues, and it would be unfair to the other 850+ members to allow an organization not paying dues to be included in member benefits.” Yet that’s exactly what they want unions to do.

Proponents frame this bill as promoting choice, freedom, and even civil rights, basically arguing that unions force workers who don’t want to be members to pay fair share fees, which they say restricts the individual worker’s freedom to not pay such fees. Hence right-to-work legislation is portrayed as ‘freeing’ workers from the oppression of ‘greedy’ labour unions that force workers to financially contribute to their operation.

This argument, however, ignores the fact that most employers restrict an individual worker’s freedom far more than the payment of union dues does, and they certainly don’t seem all that keen to support anything that gives workers more freedom from the oppression of their ‘greedy’ employers. (It’s also interesting to note that the same people often argue workers have the freedom to find a different job if they don’t like the one they have and/or their employer, yet they curiously fail to extend this argument to workers having the freedom to find a different job if they don’t want to work at a unionized workplace or pay union dues.)

Moreover, it neglects the fact that these dues are in a sense an obligation of the worker’s, i.e., it’s a payment on the part of the worker to the union for services rendered (the union’s advocacy, protection, the contract it helped to negotiate that the worker benefits from, etc.), an exchange most pro-business advocates hold sacred in every other circumstance.

In essence, they’re using legislation to restrict the freedom of unions to negotiate and agree to certain contract provisions in order to make unionized workers more free, which is kind of like giving with one hand and taking with the other. If this proposed measure passes, it could undermine their means of collecting funds and severely hamper their ability to lobby lawmakers on behalf of working Oregonians, giving corporate lobbyists an unfair political advantage and hurting workers in the long run.

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