In mainstream capitalist discourse, the defense of “rights” are a mainstay in the political infighting of the bourgeoisie. In arguments on political issues, one side (or both) argue about the rights which the other is trying to deny them. From the very real and essential battle for civil rights, rights to education and rights to well-being for workers, to the rights of states, school-boards, corporations and individuals who see the former rights as a detriment to their own “rights,” the typical dog-and-pony show of bourgeois politics sticks closely to this paradigm of “rights” and their denial.
In this perpetual back and forth between factions of the ruling class, the deceptive discourse of “rights” pulls the onlooker into a bizzare and surreal un-reality; where those with the most wealth, power and prestige are the “victims” of the usurpation of the poor and down-trodden. The bourgeoisie, whose funds and influence are the life blood of their electoral politics, must battle tirelessly to protect their “rights” from the masses of the working class. Nowhere does this insane and distorted perspective show itself more than in labor law, where a “right to work” is asserted as the right of businesses not to have to contend with unionized workers.
“Right to work” — What it doesn’t mean
At first glance, the term “right to work” would seem to have a positive feel. After all, with many American workers out of a job in this rehashing of the Great Depression, a right to employment would be a refreshing change from the poverty and uncertainty of not having such a right. However, the intention of “right to work” legislation is at direct contradiction with such a right, in that the representation of workers in their workplace, and chances at collective bargaining, are made a target for elimination.
Consider the following text from the digest of Indiana’s own “right to work” legislation:
Synopsis: Right to work. Makes it a Class A misdemeanor for an employer to require an individual to: (1) become or remain a member of a labor organization; (2) pay dues, fees, or other charges to a labor organization; or (3) pay to a charity or another third party an amount that represents dues, fees, or other charges required of members of a labor organization; as a condition of employment or continuation of employment. (1)
Essentially, the “right to work” has nothing to do with a worker’s right to employment. Rather, it is the “right” of businesses to not be subjected to the unionization of a workplace. According to the Economic Policy Institute (EPI):
Misleadingly named “right-to-work” (RTW) laws do not, as some unfamiliar with the term may assume, guarantee employment for those ready and willing to go to work. Rather, they make it illegal for a group of unionized workers to negotiate a contract that requires each employee who benefits from the contract terms to pay his or her share of the costs of negotiating and policing the contract. (2)
More “Rights” and “Freedom” to Bust Unions
In the crocodile smiles and deceptive phraseology of conservative pundits, politicians and businessmen, it’s claimed that the intention of such legislation is to prevent workers being forced to pay union dues and otherwise contribute towards efforts at collective bargaining. In the world their propaganda constructs, the union is an antagonistic force, whose only intent is to subdue workers, garnish their wages, and assert their agenda over the rights of workers and their bosses. Therefore, the “right to work” is big business’ own valiant resistance to a culture of union-thugs hell-bent on usurping absolute power in the workplace.
The narrative of the boss and workers being the victim of unions is an old one. Indeed, it’s the subject of many a workplace propaganda video, including the recently uncovered video that Target has used to “educate” their workers against unionization (video linked below).
However, this narrative is particularly absurd when one examines the power relationship that exists within capitalism’s labor market. Any laborer will tell you that an attempt to confront employers on an individual basis about unfair wages, dangerous conditions and other workplace grievances is almost certain to be met with a big fat “no” (as well as unemployment, if a worker isn’t careful). Even a group of workers, if they are not organized and willing to strike for what they want, can be easily dismissed and turned away, if not fired as a collective or one-by-one for any infractions an employer can dream up.
Even in the instances where laborers are able to get together and organize for the defense of their interests in the workplace, US labor law is so weak as to provide a litany of loop-holes (as well as insufficient consequences for outright violations of said laws) for employers wishing to combat union-drives in their workplaces. For an article outlining US labor law and its deficiencies, read more here: http://theredphoenixapl.org/2010/05/19/the-waning-of-trade-unions-labor-law-and-its-subversion/
Despite the fact that workers want unions, that unions have been shown to raise the wages of workers even outside of unionized workplaces, that unions face more hurdles than employers when it comes to their base of power, it is unions in this rhetoric that are made out to be the biggest threat to a “right to work.” This is akin to saying that a small car being rammed by large truck is the greater threat to the safety of motorists, or that a battered wife attempting to defend herself, is the greater threat in an instance of domestic violence.
When one soberly considers where power lies in the workplace, as well as the structural, political and ideological barriers that trade unionists must overcome to engage in collective bargaining with their employers, it becomes obvious that the forces of capital are in no way protecting the “rights” of any worker. Rather, it is their “right” to unchallenged exploitation that is what they truly endeavor to protect. It is the “right” of the bourgeoisie to deny workers demonstration within the workplace.
The impact of “Right to Work” legislation on working people
In addition to the sham argument that “right to work” legislation is meant to protect bosses and workers from unions, another argument is made which claims that such legislation creates jobs. However, despite the claims of the proponents of this legislation, the example of “right to work” legislation enacted in Oklahoma demonstrates that the opposite is true. From an EPI study of “right to work”’s impact on Oklahoma:
Not only has manufacturing employment failed to rise in Oklahoma, but, after increasing steadily the previous 10 years, it has fallen steadily in every year since right-to-work was adopted. The state’s manufacturing sector grew from 155,000 jobs in 1990 to a peak of nearly 177,000 in 2000.
In the decade following adoption of the new law, however, manufacturing employment declined sharply and has never regained its pre-right-to-work level. Oklahoma ended the decade with 123,000 residents employed in manufacturing, nearly 50,000 less than when the law was voted in.36 This does not mean that right-to-work in itself caused a decline in the state’s manufacturing employment. Rather, it suggests that right to work had no positive impact on the manufacturing sector and, in the face of broader forces undermining the sector, right-to-work was simply impotent.
Nor did right-to-work lead to lower unemployment rates for Oklahoma residents. In 2000, the year before the law was adopted, Oklahoma’s unemployment rate was just above 3%; by the end of 2010 it stood at 6.86% (3)
Despite the insistence of businesses and their lackeys that “right to work” legislation will help create jobs during the “great recession,” and despite their twisting and turning of statistical data to corroborate this story, the fact is that the “right to work” snake-oil doesn’t create jobs. What it does is puts more ammunition in the hands of employers to use against workers who dare stand up to their workplace hegemony, and helps ensure that employers go unchallenged as they slash the wages and benefits of their employees.
Conclusion: The rights workers need
When the notion of “rights” comes up in political discourse, it is essential to ask for clarification. The “right to work” that is being hawked by the lackeys of capital is no “right” for any worker. The “right” lies with the bosses, and it is their right to do whatever they please in their pursuit of profit, despite whatever “rights” workers have been duped into thinking they have within capitalism.
The fact of the matter is that, in capitalism, a true “right to work” cannot, and will not exist. Employment, the ability to work towards the profit ends of a corporation (in most cases, excluding government jobs and non-profit work) cannot be considered a right, but a privilege, in capitalism. The reason for this is that full employment, especially a full employment wherein workers are entitled to their employment, gives a power to workers that can only impede the capitalist’s profit. Unemployment, the existence of a reserve army of labor to allow capitalists the ability to keep wages low, is an essential structural element to capitalist production.
The solution is not, as the capitalists say, to combat the rights of workers to organize their workplaces. The solution is precisely the opposite: to allow workers not only to organize their workplaces, but the whole of society, under a system that works for the advancement of all workers. Otherwise, any “rights” workers have will be tempered and restricted for the benefit of business.