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5 Things You Need to Know About the Attacks on Workers’ Freedoms

By Pablo Ros
AFSCME wokrers demonstrate
Supreme Court case could reverse the gains public workers achieved through collective bargaining.(Photo by David Bacon)

1. Our union faces an unprecedented effort to eliminate our rights.

For more than 40 years, the National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation tried to prevent hardworking American women and men from collectively bargaining for better wages and benefits. By forming unions and paying dues, working people pool their resources as a way to counter balance the vast corporate resources that don’t always have our interests in mind. Right to Work understands this is the most effective way for workers to advocate for themselves and their goal is to stop collective advocacy. Right-to-work schemes – what we call right-to-work-for-less schemes – are intended to destroy unions by attacking the ability of workers to fund union activity with their dues.

In thousands of cases, including a dozen or so that reached the U.S. Supreme Court, the Right to Work Foundation, a front group for corporate interests and right-wing extremists, aimed straight at the heart of American democracy by seeking to silence workers’ voices on the job.

In Right-to-Work States, You’re More Likely to…

Earn less: Workers earn about $1,500 less per year.     

Be uninsured by your employer: The rate of employer-sponsored health insurance is 2.6 percentage points lower.

Be unemployed: Eight of the 12 states with the highest unemployment rates have right-to-work laws on the books.

Be killed on the job: The rate of workplace deaths is 52.9 percent higher in right-to-work states.

Sources: Economic Policy Institute and U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics

Their latest attempt is Harris v. Quinn, a case that was argued before the U.S. Supreme Court in January and is like a weapon of mass destruction aimed at public sector unions. It represents “the most far-reaching existential threat we ever faced as a union,” says Pres. Lee Saunders.

2. Harris v. Quinn doesn’t just target home care providers – it targets all workers.

At stake in Harris v. Quinn is the very ability of public sector unions to engage in collective bargaining activities. The Right to Work Foundation’s argument is that government workers should not be able to come together and negotiate over their wages, benefits and other conditions of employment, simply because they are in public service.

It’s already the law that “fair share” payers can avoid paying the portion of union dues that cover expenditures for ideological causes. But this would go even further.

“It is an attempt by the National Right to Work Committee to undermine the very foundations of public service trade unionism,” President Saunders says. “Not only is Right to Work following its usual program of attacking fair share fees, it also asks the Supreme Court to rule on the right of independent providers to bargain collectively with states.”

3. Warning: There is radical change ahead.

At the U.S. Supreme Court hearing in January, the Right to Work lawyer, William Messenger, claimed that deducting union dues from a public employee’s paycheck for the purposes of collective bargaining is a violation of that public worker’s freedom of speech. His argument raised a few eyebrows among the judges, but not as many as it should have.

“It is a radical argument,” Justice Elena Kagan said in response. “It would radically restructure the way workplaces across this country are run.”

“Since the Taft-Hartley-Act,” Kagan continued, “there has been a debate in every state across this country about whether to be a right-to-work state, and people have disagreed. Some states say yes, some states say no. It raises considerable heat and passion and tension, as we recently saw in Wisconsin. But, you know, these are public policy choices that states make.”

Harris v. Quinn is in fact about freedom of speech and freedom of association. It is about the freedom of millions of home care providers in our nation, many of whom already democratically chose to organize their union, to have a voice on the job, to speak out for our consumers and improve our ability to provide quality services, and to collectively defend our rights as public employees.

4. Women are at risk.

There is also an implicit sexist agenda in Harris v. Quinn, to prevent women’s earnings from catching up to those of men. In fact, of the nearly 2 million home health care providers in our nation, more than 90 percent of them are women.

Should the court side with the Right to Work lobby, we and other public sector unions could lose several hundred thousand members overnight. But what’s worse is that home care workers, many of whom are women with families of their own who must rely on government assistance to make ends meet, would lose their voice on the job and be at greater risk of further falling into poverty.

5. These attacks on workers’ rights are coordinated.

Many of the attacks against public workers and their families come from the same source. Although they do their best to hide their donors, groups like the Right to Work Committee or the better-known American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) are funded by the super wealthy to further enrich themselves at the expense of the American middle class.

Two of these major funders are the billionaire Koch brothers, Charles and David, who are owners of Koch Industries and on the list of America’s top air polluters. The money they spend on buying politicians at all levels of government shows no sign of slowing down. In the 2012 elections, the Koch brothers spent $413 million, more than 2.5 times the combined spending of the top 10 labor unions.

And their efforts are far from unsuccessful. In Wisconsin, for example, where AFSCME members lost their collective bargaining rights, nearly half of state legislators voted with the ALEC agenda 100 percent of the time in 2011-2012.

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