Ken Hall: West Virginians’ lives are better without ‘right to work’

By By Ken Hall

The people of West Virginia are being told by some elected officials and business leaders that so-called right-to-work legislation will boost jobs and pay in the Mountain State. But what is right-to-work?

As the Economic Policy Institute explains, right to work laws have nothing to do with whether people can be forced to join a union or contribute to a political cause they do not support; that is already illegal. Nor do right to work laws have anything to do with the right to have a job or be provided employment.

Instead, right to work laws weaken a union’s ability to help workers bargain with their employers for better wages, benefits, and working conditions by allowing non-members the benefits of a union contract without paying any of the cost. But right-to-work laws don’t just affect union members; they affect all workers and their paychecks.

In fact, according to the Bureau of Economic Analysis, 11 out of the 15 poorest states based on per capita income are right to work states. Workers in these states make almost $1,500 a year less.

There’s also the matter of safety. A recent University of Michigan report indicates that states without right to work laws have lower workplace fatality rates than those with right to work on the books. How do less pay and more unsafe working conditions help everyday West Virginians?

Meanwhile, there’s also the issue of fairness. When, by a majority vote, workers choose to form a union in a particular workplace, that union is legally obligated to represent all workers at that workplace, whether they are dues-paying members or not. That means if a non-member is discharged, the union could be forced to spend thousands to represent that worker. In fact, the union can be sued for not representing that worker to the best of its ability. Non-members enjoy the pay, benefits and representation provided by the union without having to contribute a cent in dues. Why should unions have to pay for freeloaders?

There are powerful friends of big business here in the Mountain State who have gotten behind this effort. Senate President Bill Cole and House Speaker Tim Armstead are two of them. They pushed for the issuance of a report last month by West Virginia University’s Bureau of Business and Economic Research that, not surprisingly, endorses their position.

The Bureau of Business and Economic Research has largely focused on providing economic data in the past, not making policy recommendations. So it is odd to see it take on such a role when it comes to right to work. And given some of the document’s findings, the Teamsters are challenging the report and its presumption that West Virginia will be better off with weaker collective bargaining rights.

For instance, there is no proof that non-right to work states stifle business development. In fact, the U.S. Census Bureau reported that Missouri and Kentucky — both of which protect the rights of union members — overwhelmingly led the nation in new business creation in its most recent survey. How can that be possible if right to work allies are correct?

Instead, what West Virginia is witnessing is politics at its worst. Cole and Armstead are closely following the agenda of the conservative American Legislative Exchange Council, which is supported by multi-national corporations and billionaire political entrepreneurs like the Koch Brothers.

In fact, I challenge any pro-right to work political leader in the state to a public debate. If it is such a good deal for hardworking West Virginians, surely they can explain why. Because frankly, the statistics don’t seem to back it up.

The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, for instance, found that when it comes to quality of life in the U.S., eight of 10 of the worst states are right to work, while eight of 10 of the best do not have right to work laws.

For generations, elected officials have stood up for workers in West Virginia. The state’s minefields have been home of some of the most vicious battles in the whole country going back a century. Workers here have literally given blood for the right to organize.

But that stance in favor of workers seems in jeopardy now. Republican legislators swept into office in 2014 ran on a platform of creating jobs. But unemployment is higher now here than it was when then. Are you better off than you were a year ago? If not, reject their ideas and say no to right to work!

Ken Hall is president of Teamsters Local 175 in South Charleston and Teamsters General Secretary-Treasurer.

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