The Right to Shirk

factoryIndiana’s proposed “Right to Work” Act is not just anti-union, it is anti-democratic. Under the law if a majority of workers in a plant vote for a union, those who opposed the union would not have to contribute dues to the union. Indiana Republicans are touting the law as giving individuals freedom not to have to join a union and thus leading to more jobs in Indiana.

The connection between not joining a union and more jobs in Indiana is not spelled out, but is understood by most people. The “Right to Work” law will discourage unionization and thus companies looking for cheap labor, few or no benefits, and few worker-rights associated with non-unionized workers will flood into the state-providing lots of low-wage, low-benefits jobs.

There is more to this story. I know people who objected to the War in Iraq by refusing to pay their income tax that went towards the war. I did not join this protest because I believe that even if a war was wrong, in a democracy, one has a responsibility to contribute taxes to policies supported by the majority.

One certainly has a right to protest those policies and to vote and protest against them, but I do not think one gets to pick and choose which policies the majority support that you actually fund. “Right to Work” Laws support a world where one gets to avoid paying for what the majority voted.

But the Right to Work Laws are even more problematic. Imagine that the Republicans in Indiana voted to build a bridge between Indiana and Kentucky, and to pay for the bridge they added a toll on the bridge. Imagine you opposed the bridge and were pleased that the bridge would be paid for by a toll rather than state taxes you had to pay. If it were a simple toll bridge, you could avoid paying the toll by refusing to use the bridge. Something you did not support to begin with. You took the ferry across instead.

Now, following the logic of the Right to Work Law, Indiana legislators decided that only those who wanted to pay the toll had to pay. After watching others simply cross the bridge while you were taking the ferry across, you began to use the bridge. But because the toll was not mandatory, you continued to refuse to pay the toll despite the fact you used the bridge. Fair enough! Except as you cross the bridge without paying, others also figure why pay if you do not have to since one can still have the advantage of the bridge. As Mitt Romney has shown us all, in general, one does not pay what one does not have to pay even if it would have been fairer if one did.

Soon no one would pay the toll and the bridge would become unsafe until it finally fell into the water. Many people, including you, would lose the use of the bridge. But the ferry companies would be very happy. And it turns out that the plan to make paying the toll voluntary was supported all along by the ferry companies. For some, it might become apparent that that was behind idea of the voluntary tolls — was a plan to make the bridge fail.

That is the story of “Right to Work” laws. They make maintaining a union extremely difficult. They came into being specifically to inhibit union growth, particularly in the South. The Republican “Right to Work” plan for Indiana is a plan to cripple unions so that companies looking for a non-union, cheap labor source will come to Indiana. And existing unionized companies could more readily break the union.

The Indiana Republican plan is not about the right to work it is about the right to shirk. In a world of angels, all would pay their union dues whether they had to or not or whether they supported the union or not because the majority voted for it and because everyone gains the benefits of the union. Hoosiers may be nice, but I do not think they are all angels.

John T. Cumbler

John T. Cumbler is a history professor at the University of Louisville and the author of a half dozen books on American history, three of them about labor and economic history. He has been involved in the labor movement and Jobs With Justice for many years.

Published by the LA Progressive on February 5, 2012
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