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Donna Brazile: Right to work for less money and no clout?

Posted: December 18, 2012 2:00 a.m.
Updated: December 18, 2012 2:00 a.m.

In the 1967 movie “Cool Hand Luke,” the Captain (Strother Martin) beats Luke (Paul Newman) and delivers one of the most famous lines in film: “What we’ve got here is failure to communicate.”

The Orwellian information nightmare we’re now living through is a “refusal to communicate,” the latest example being the ad blitz by out-of-state conservatives about Michigan’s recently passed right-to-work law.

According to conservative groups, which are dumping money into the state like pollutants into a lake, the newspeak-named “right to work” protects workers’ rights by giving them a choice whether or not to join a union — and pay the union’s dues.

Richard Hurd, a labor expert at Cornell University, estimates that Michigan unions stand to lose 20 to 30 percent of their budget, which in turn will reduce their bargaining strength.

Include the history of the labor movement among subjects under-taught. Here’s a summary: Business owners resisted workers’ early efforts to get fair wages and safe working conditions, often violently. Business used the newspapers — the only media, and owned by business — to communicate how “subversive” and “un-American” the workers’ demands were.

Workers organized, and then went on strike, trying to force owners to negotiate. But owners hired thugs — or enlisted the local police — to break picket lines, if necessary with blows and bullets.

After many battles, legal and physical, the union shop was born. It became law that workers had to join the union after being hired.

Today, workers don’t have to join unions. But they do have to pay union dues, because even non-union workers reap the benefits of increased wages and rights that unions win for all workers.

This brings us back to the Koch brothers’ newspeak update. (Which version of “war is peace” and “slavery is freedom” are we on?)

Propaganda: Without right-to-work laws, workers would be forced to join unions and buy into everything and anything a union wants or supports.

Fact: Workers don’t have to join the union, and don’t have to support candidates or causes the union supports. The National Labor Relations Board guarantees that non-union workers must pay only that portion of union dues that goes to directly represent them.

In this battle, labor has made a strategic mistake. The Washington Post quotes Nelson Lichtenstein, a labor historian at University of California, Santa Barbara, who says, “The language of union leaders is that they’re defending the middle class. But it’s more than that. Workers are defending a concept, a sentiment, and a fundamental moral value.”

Unions defend the fundamental moral value that workers deserve a fair share of the value their work produces. Right-to-work laws weaken unions, so they cannot bargain effectively for benefits and wages — on behalf of all workers, members or not.

Make no mistake, right-to-work laws exist to bust the unions. (The billy club is now a pen.) In the 23 states (now 24) that have these laws, the middle class has weakened.

The Center for American Progress released a recent study showing that “the average worker — unionized or not — working in a right-to-work state earns approximately $1,500 less per year than a similar worker in a state without such a law.”

Further, “Workers in right-to-work states are also significantly less likely to receive employer-provided health insurance and pensions.”

Healthy unions not only lead to a stronger middle class, they also fuel a consumer-driven economy. Only in doublespeak does “lower wages” translate into “prosperity for all.”

President Obama, speaking to autoworkers in Michigan, denounced comparison with other countries as justification for poor pay and bad benefits here, saying, “There’s always going to be some other country that can treat its workers even worse.”

Political observers note that right-to-work laws are part of a concerted campaign by conservatives and Republican leaders to destroy middle-class private sector institutions that support and fund Democratic candidates.

None of us who cherish fairness in the workplace and honesty in the media can relax because the election is over.

We must forever remain vigilant.

Donna Brazile is a senior Democratic strategist, a political commentator and contributor to CNN and ABC News, and a contributing columnist to Ms. Magazine and O, the Oprah Magazine.


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