Right To Work Arguments: Opponents Are Making The Wrong Arguments, Here Are the Right Ones


With Michigan becoming the 24th "right-to-work" state in the country, it’s obvious that the Great Teabagging of 2010 continues undeterred by President Obama's victory. State legislatures, still dominated by Republicans (and locked in for the next decade thanks to gerrymandering) have continued to roll back much of the progress the labor movement has made in the last century.

The reason? This progress – safety standards, higher wages, workers’ rights – hasn’t been good for the short-term gains of short-sighted management. Furthermore, the collective force of labor unions has stood in the way of conservative political domination for generations – together, they can match folks like Sheldon Adelson with boots on the ground and money to spend.

Of course, going back to the days when people got burned alive in garment factories isn’t particularly appealing to the average undecided voter. And people generally like clean air and not sending their kids into mineshafts, so rolling back this progress doesn’t resonate.

Republicans have two options if they want labor unions to go away:

Frame child mineshaft work as a derivative of Chuck-E-Cheese where you earn real cash. Come up with a good reason to bust unions.

Republicans chose the latter. This new reason goes by the name of “right to work.” Anti-union folks have changed the face of their agenda into being all about protecting people. From what, you ask? Well, from being forced to join a union!

Faced with the prospect of mandated union membership sweeping the country like falling dominoes, right-to-work is now spreading instead. The debate in each state is different, but an appeal to freedom is the crux of the Republican argument and it is crushing the left. It's clean. It's simple. After all, who wants to be forced to join anything, especially a union?!

Calm down, no one is being forced to join a union. But curiously, that’s not the Democrats’ go-to argument. Instead, we have weak sauce proofs that are anything but a silver bullet. Let’s start with…

"The Republicans are trying to crush unions!"

Okay, yes. That's obvious. But most people aren't in unions anymore. So why do we care? If you're looking to call it even and feel good about being above it all, unions are really fun to throw in the same boat as corporations. I mean, they haven't been perfect, which is why to lots of people in the middle, who already may be skeptical, waving the union flag sounds like "commie talk." So if you can make people think unions are all about forced communitarianism, most people are probably good with going ahead and crushing them.

Unions built the middle class / secured worker's rights!

Historiography is great. But remember, most people don’t know that the reason we don’t live in a dystopia run by Biff Tannen is largely because of union sweat. Arguing from tradition is a logical fallacy in itself, and unless you can prove that unions will make the future better, talking about marches that happened back in some non-Instagrammed sepia-toned pictures isn't going to get you anywhere.

As it stands, a sizeable amount of people think the problem of economic stagnation now centers around workers organizing for a better lot in life. Of course, that’s not how they frame it, but collective bargaining is frequently (and erroneously) viewed among the non-union population as selfish and particularistic.

Right-to-work states have lower wages/higher unemployment/etc.

Data-driven arguments are good, and these arguments do check out if you look into them. But of course, to the average person who basically trusts everything or doesn't, there's really no difference between BLS statistics and a Heritage Foundation analysis. It's all the same, especially if someone with “authority” or a sleek-looking webpage is saying it.

This kind of information is great as a supplement. But as the opening argument? If people think that they’re going to have some union thugs at the door demanding their dues – it doesn’t matter.

Look, if people aren’t made to join the union, they’ll freeload on the benefits received!

Yes, this may also be true. And collective bargaining really works best when everyone works collectively. The collective gains fought for by unions should be invested in collectively.

But if people haven’t accepted that union activity is good, it’s still a matter of coercion to them – at least the way Republicans are presenting it. That will always stand in the way of any argument that tries to prove a link between unions and prosperity. Everything else is meaningless if you’re being forced to do something.

Let’s look at that Republican argument again to remember how easy and intuitive-seeming it is.

People should be free to work without being forced to join a union.

Do you get it? Good. Wait, what’s that about right-to-work states having lower wages…?

People should be free to work without being forced to join a union.

Oh, okay. I see. Yeah, I don’t want to be forced to join a union, so that kind of makes sense…

The golden opportunity the left misses is that the only people who are doing the coercing here is the government – and only in the case of right-to-work. No one is being forced to join a union because no one is being forced to work at any specific company. Rather, right-to-work is a government regulation, putting the government in between labor and management, and dictating what the terms of their working relationship can be.

Maybe you think that's cool. But that's much more difficult ground to stand on than before.