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Russ Stillwell

GOP leaders in the Republican-majority Indiana General Assembly say passing a right to work law is their top priority in the 2012 session.

Unions call “right to work” the “right to work for less.”

“Right to work is a cancerous ideology,” longtime Hoosier labor leader Russ Stilwell warned the recent 29th biennial convention of the Kentucky State AFL-CIO in Louisville.

Stilwell, 63, is a 41-year UMWA member and vice president of the Indiana State AFL-CIO’s Executive Board. “If the Republicans succeed in Indiana, right to work will spread like a cancer to other states,” he adds.

Mitch Daniels, Indiana’s Republican governor, also favors a right to work law. The GOP holds the most seats in the House and Senate.

Stilwell, from Boonville, sought union support in Kentucky, Indiana’s southern neighbor. Kentucky is not a right to work state.

About 160 union delegates from across the Bluegrass State welcomed Stilwell’s remarks with a standing ovation.

Daniels and the Republicans failed to get a right to work law earlier this year after all but one Democratic House member left the state for 35 days and thousands of union members and supporters from Indiana and other states, including Kentucky, thronged the capitol in Indianapolis. Since then, the legislature passed a law levying $1,000-a-day fines against boycotting legislators.

“The battle is far from over, and we’ve got a tough fight ahead,” Stilwell says, admitting that the term “right to work” can fool even some union members.

Meanwhile, supporters of right to work laws in Indiana and elsewhere make three basic arguments:

  • They bring "democracy" to the workplace by giving workers a choice of whether or not to join a union.
  • They create "good paying jobs."
  • They “free” workers from making “compulsory” contributions to political campaigns.

All three arguments are false.

Unions are not forced on workers. Workers vote unions in, and they can vote unions out. (Majority rule would continue under the proposed Employee Free Choice Act. The measure, the AFL-CIO's Internet website points out, would "allow workers to form unions and bargain once a majority signs authorization cards....The Employee Free Choice Act would restore workers’ freedom to form unions and bargain by enabling workers to form unions without the fear, delay and coercion inherent in our current system. Majority sign-up is a long-established way to form a union, dating back to passage of the National Labor Relations Act.")

Simply put, right to work laws are designed to weaken large unions, destroy small unions, and keep unorganized workers from unionizing.

Right to work laws undermine unions by prohibiting union security agreements between unions and employers. Under a union security agreement, all non-management workers belong to the union. Or they pay the union a service fee or an amount equivalent to union dues.

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In other words, the union supports the workers. In turn, the workers support the union.

But workers don’t have to support political candidates their unions endorse. “Political contributions by union members are voluntary through dues check off,” Stilwell says.

Likewise, workers who pay service fees or money equal to union dues can request that none of their money go for political action, he adds.

Stillwell says right to work supporters always focus their fire on union security agreements.

But the union can’t force a union security agreement on an employer. Union security agreements are bargainable. Union and management agree to them. The union can’t dictate them.

Thus, he thinks it’s ironic that the GOP, which has also declared holy war on “big government,” wants government to dictate labor-management contracts by outlawing union security clauses.

These are the same folks who consistently tell us that government needs to get out of our lives.

Republicans also claim to be big fans of “rugged individualism” and pulling oneself up by one’s own bootstraps.

Yet right to work laws encourage freeloading. Under a right to work law, workers at a jobsite with a union contract can enjoy union-negotiated and union-won wages and benefits without joining the union or paying a service fee or the equivalent of dues. Even so, unions must represent these non-union employees when they have trouble with the boss.

In addition, right to work laws don’t produce good paying jobs. They are geared to drive down wages.

Paychecks in right to work states are a lot skimpier than they are in non-right to work states.

"In 2009, average pay in so-called 'right to work' states was 11.1 percent lower than in states where workers have the freedom to form strong unions," the AFL-CIO's website also says, citing numbers from the nonpartisan U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Absent unions, wages, of course, go down. That's why unions label “right to work” the "right to work for less."

Berry Craig

Meanwhile, Stilwell, a combat veteran of the Vietnam War, says Indiana unions aren’t giving up the fight against right to work.

If these greedy, mean-spirited Republicans succeed, it won’t just be Hoosier workers who get hurt. Republicans will look to Indiana and start pushing right to work in other states. So if we lose, all workers lose.

Berry Craig