Making the Old "Right to Work" New Again

There was a time in this country when “right to work” meant a right to a job — that if you couldn’t find a job in the private sector, the government would provide you one, as an employer of last resort. Now, to the extent that we recognize a “right to work,” it’s a concept that has been distorted to mean the “right not to join a union,” and governmental policy actively fights the concept of full employment. What would the employment picture look like in this country if government policy encouraged both full employment and union membership? Quite a bit different than it does right now, I’d dare say.

A recent column in the New York Times discussed the concept of “full employment,” which means that every adult who wanted to work could have a decent job. Those who couldn’t find positions in the private sector would be able to turn to the government as an employer of last resort. (See New York Times article.) As crazy as that might sound to those of us under 50, it was once a “hotly pursued goal” for the United States to achieve full employment. President Franklin Roosevelt declared in 1944 that having a job was a basic human right, and during World War II, the nation actually achieved full employment.

Now, governmental policy actively works against the concept of full employment, under the guise of protecting against inflation. The conventional wisdom is that:

If unemployment became too low, the labor shortage would give workers the bargaining leverage to push up wages. Employers would respond by raising prices to cover the labor costs, starting an inflationary spiral deemed to be more damaging than a rising unemployment rate.

(See New York Times article.) It’s considered less damaging for a large group of people who want to work to be sitting at home collecting unemployment than it is for corporations to make less money, so any time the Fed gets the least bit nervous about inflation, workers take the hit.

Of course, some economists think this is bunk. James Glassman, senior domestic economist at J. P. Morgan Chase & Company, says “This idea that wages are a signal of coming inflation is a bad habit. Business has control over labor costs more than ever in this global economy, as so many workers unfortunately are finding out.” Some economists agree with him, and the Times article reports that there is some talk about bringing back full employment, or at least what we had in the late 90s, “when the economy boomed, the unemployment rate plummeted, wages rose faster than inflation across the work force and, lo and behold, inflation remained low, although the Fed still held down interest rates.”

The White House is now saying that we’re close to full employment. (See Reuters article.) The White House has also just appointed two new nominees to the Federal Reserve Board who say their top priority is “controlling inflation.” (See New York Times article.) The timing seems rather suspicious, don’t you think? Does anyone really think it’s true that every American who wants to work has a job? (I guess it doesn’t count if workers now have two or three jobs which have replaced the one job they had before.)

Meanwhile, the “right to work” has come to mean something quite different than what it did in President Roosevelt’s era. It has become the shorthand reference for laws in over 20 states which prevent unions from requiring that all eligible employees in a particular workplace join the union. Supporters of such laws decry “compulsory unionism,” and cloaks their activities in language about freedom and individualism.

One of the leading organizations active in the right-to-work movement, the National Right to Work Committee, says it is “dedicated to the principle that all Americans must have the right to join a union if they choose to, but none should ever be forced to affiliate with a union in order to get or keep a job.” (If you look at the work NRWC is doing, however, you’ll see it’s much more active in the fight on behalf of the second half of that equation than the first.)

We can probably expect more of the same from a new group to recently emerge, the Center for Union Facts, a business-backed group which plans to spend five million dollars this year telling America such viewpoints as, “Union leaders have abused the trust of their members. They’ve misspent member dues and harmed the very same people they promise to protect,” while asserting that many unions are corrupt and have hurt airlines, steel makers and automakers. (See New York Times article.) The Center isn’t disclosing who its backers are, but Randel Johnson, vice president for labor, immigration and employee benefits at the United States Chamber of Commerce, admits to being one of their advisors, saying that “We think the Center on Union Facts is useful for workers to have access to more information on unions.”

Even if you believe those affiliated with the Administration who claim we’re close to full employment, it’s not because of the principles that guided the Roosevelt Administration, that full employment is important “not as a desirable market phenomenon — the spinoff of a robust economy — but as a civil right, on a par with the right to vote.” (See New York Times article.) Instead, the only “right to work” we have is what anti-union interests have staked out for themselves — not what any right-thinking progressive should be supporting. A real right to work would look much different, encompassing both support for vigorous union organizing efforts and government employment for those who cannot find work elsewhere.

It’s obvious there is much work to be done — just look at Katrina’s aftermath and the enormous amount of clean-up work still ongoing, if you’re wondering what kind of work the government should be employing people to do. It seems like it’s easier to let the private sector exploit immigrant workers, temporarily eliminate union prevailing wage protections, and gouge the government for profits than it is for the government to consider employing its own workers. But that experience should tell us that it may be time to resurrect the old “right to work” that President Roosevelt recognized and actively supported through government initiatives such as the Works Progress Administration (WPA).

As Nobel Prize-winning economist Amartya Sen recognizes, “[T]he real costs of unemployment are very high. Having a job confers not only income, but social recognition and self-respect, which comes with having the sense of being wanted by society.” It’s time to start tackling some of those costs by pushing for a real “right to work” — an old-fashioned idea that needs some new blood.

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Madeline Messa

Madeline Messa is a 3L at Syracuse University College of Law. She graduated from Penn State with a degree in journalism. With her legal research and writing for Workplace Fairness, she strives to equip people with the information they need to be their own best advocate.