One piece of legislation likely to be considered in West Virginia in 2016 is misleadingly called "right to work," or RTW. It really has nothing to do with that right but a lot to do with targeting all working families. It's more like "right to work for less."
According to current law, if most eligible workers in a private-sector job vote to join a union in a National Labor Relations Board election, all belong.
And all benefit from wages, benefits, conditions and representation in grievances that membership provides. RTW would weaken unions and ultimately all workers by allowing some to benefit without contributing.
So why care? Consider the following:
1. RTW undermines labor standards. Union workers are likely to earn living wages and benefits that make for a stable family - benefits like health care, sick days, vacations and pensions. Unions also help set the standards for nonunion employers. This is known as the spillover effect. RTW laws would reduce union membership and ultimately weaken the position of all workers.
2. Unions fought for years for policies we sometimes take for granted, like abolition of child labor, overtime laws, basic safety regulations. Weakening unions makes it easier to undermine these programs and policies.
3. Upper Big Branch is an extreme example of what can happen if unions are taken out of the picture. UBB was originally a union mine. After acquiring it, Massey made promises and the union was decertified. Without a union, workers had little voice about working in unsafe conditions. We know what happened next.
4. RTW undermines the democratic process. If workers want to form a union, they have to win an election, which is often difficult due to intimidation by employers. If they win, the union represents all eligible members, who benefit from collective bargaining. If workers believe the union no longer serves their interests, they have another election to decertify it. RTW short circuits this, allowing people to benefit without paying dues.
5. This creates a free rider problem. The union is obligated to bargain for and represent all eligible employees in grievances. But with RTW, some benefit without contributing. This has the effect of ultimately weakening the union, its bargaining power and the benefits it can gain.
6. If workers object to union political activities, they can become a "Beck objector" (the name comes from a court case). This means they can only pay for the costs associated with their representation.
7. If you look at multiple measures of quality of life, RTW states don't come off very well. A while back, Politico came up with a ranking for 50 states and the District of Columbia, looking at things like income, life expectancy, education and graduation levels, crime etc. Only three of the top 10 were RTW, while all five of the lowest were. RTW states made up nine of the top 25 but 15 of the bottom. While Politico didn't explicitly look at labor laws, this at least suggests that RTW isn't a cure-all.
8. Finally, it comes down to whether we want to take the low road or the high road to West Virginia's future. The low road means weakening labor standards and supporting policies that reduce wages and benefits for working people. A high-road approach would aim at lifting people up and dealing with critical problems like education, workforce development, infrastructure, etc.
This shouldn't be a partisan issue. As the libertarian Foundation for Economic Education put it, "Right-to-work laws limit workers' and employers' freedom of contract. They prevent workers and employers from making mutually beneficial agreements. They don't belong in a free society."
Rick Wilson, a Milton resident, is program director of the American Friends Service Committee's WV Economic Justice Project.