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Business and labor clash over "Right to Work" in Ohio

Posted: Monday, March 23, 2015 12:00 am

With Wisconsin earlier this month becoming a "right-to-work" state, half of U.S. states no longer require workers to pay union dues to receive union benefits.

With Ohio labeled a battleground state, both sides are stating their cases for and against implementing similar legislation in the Buckeye State.

"Right-to-work creates freeloaders, the very same thing we say we don't want to see," said Ted Flemming, Chairman of United Auto Workers Local 211, Retired Workers Chapter, and Chairman of United Auto Workers Region 2B Retired Workers Council.

Being a right-to-work state means that during initial negotiations between a business and union, required union dues cannot be established in what's called a union security clause, but all workers will still reap the benefits of representation. This would put a strain on the financial ability of unions to fulfill both fundamental and political functions.

In 1947, The Taft-Hartley Act effectively ended "required unionism," but left non-union workers to pay "agency fees" in place of dues, which can only go toward representation expenses, not to politically motivated expenditures.

Therefore, union participation is not required in non-right-to-work states, as no unintended money flows to political agendas. What right-to-work does signify is more basic — it's a state's choice to end non-union member funding, including those agency fees

While any one state's passage of right-to-work laws likely won't be an instant death-knell for an already reeling labor organization movement in America (only about one in eight Americans are union members), having only some workers pay in for a service that works for all employees, paying and non-paying, will likely cause long-term problems involving worker solidarity, Flemming said.

"(Advocates) have convinced people that they're going to get everything they can get for nothing ... Nobody gets something for nothing, not for long anyway," said Flemming.

A 1998 survey of econometric literature by Attorney William J. Moore found that right-to-work laws directly lead to more free-riding behavior among employees, meaning a decline in unionization drives, organizing successes, and ultimately in overall union clout.

Right-to-work supporters are pushing legislation under the rallying cry of "freedom of choice" and a pro-business growth agenda.

"If i was looking for a state to set up a new business in, one of the first things I would look at is if it's a right-to-work state," said Paul Troder, president of Allied Moulding Products in Bryan. "The few people I've talked to think this the right thing to do... I think people are realizing they'd rather steer their own path then have someone do it for them."

According to a joint study by the University of Nevada Las Vegas and the University of Maryland, business growth in right-to-work states increased 1.5 percentage points faster in the second half of the century when states began adopting such legislation. In 2000, per capita disposable income hit $25,183 in right-to-work states, compared to $22,332 in other states.

However, examples from individual states show undesirable consequences, with Oklahoma losing 50,000 manufacturing jobs by the end of the decade after right-to-work was passed. A 2012 Wall Street Journal report cited that workers in right-to-work states made close to 10 percent less than those in their non-right-to-work counterparts.

Further clouding the issue, unbiased studies on the subject are hard to find due to the partisan tone of the debate. Additionally, state-to-state variables are nearly impossible to account for. Unions are a huge contributor to Democratic campaigns, to the tune of $53,924,419 in 2013-2014 (Just $6,596,887 for Republicans). Conversely, the Republican side is primarily aimed at making sure the business climate is relaxed for firms.

Labor activists feel that even outside of hard statistics, there's a larger philosophical issue at play.

"It's a backdoor attempt to defund unions, so (they) go away ... Right-to-work takes away the power of the people and gives it right back to the corporations, it's about control," said Flemming.

Idaho and Oklahoma saw union membership decline after adopting right-to-work laws in the early 2000s. In the law's first full year in Michigan, union membership fell by 48,000, even as employment in the state rose.

With less workers paying membership fees, unions have less financial ability to train and educate leaders to negotiate in areas like fair wages, safety concerns, and equal treatment, while CEO earnings skyrocket and worker wage growth stagnates, detractors say.

They also worry that younger workers don't realize the role unions played in developing workplace regulations like the 40-hour work week, weekends, lunch breaks, non-discrimination policies, retirement and worker's compensation.

Labor advocacy is an issue close to Flemming's heart, as he grew up in a coal town in Virginia.

"He shopped in the company store, with company script," said Flemming of his father before describing the deplorable conditions around a workforce that was all but owned by the company.

There are perception issues at play for the average American. According to Gallup data, union approval ratings have declined from 65 percent in the mid-2000s to 53 percent in 2015.

Unions are sometimes perceived as the "champion of the lazy" because they advocate for any concern issued by a worker, no matter how outlandish it may seem.