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Why We Fight for Democracy in the Workplace

Eleanor Roosevelt understood that labor union fights are about giving people a voice -- not about partisan politics.
 
 
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We lost Wisconsin. No, we lost the recall of Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker. In the course of the recall, and in much of the post-election analysis, we forgot what the original fight was about. Back in January 2011, teachers, firefighters, nurses, police officers, friends and neighbors filled the capitol and the streets because of legislation that would end the right of public employees to have a union. The fight was not about pensions or budgets, deficits or recalcitrant unions. Unions agreed to concessions. Scott Walker’s legislation was about ending public sector unions; taking away the right of employees to have a voice at work. 

Last year in Ohio, Governor Kasich supported similar legislation. Instead of trying to recall the governor, however, we won by defeating the legislation. SB 5 was put on the ballot and resoundingy rejected at the polls. Politicians will be challenged in the next regular elections. One lesson? We won when the debate stayed focused on repealing the law that ended the democratic process for people at work across political lines. We lost when the debate became a replay of the last partisan election.

Ohio’s “We Are One” effort to defeat anti-union legislation has historical precedent. The issue was right-to-work laws in 1958 to weaken unions in the private sector. The issue and the strategy are relevant today. A right-to-work law recently passed in Indiana and legislation is pending in New Hampshire, Maine and Minnesota. Polls show support in Ohio and Michigan. (For more on history and current laws, see Mother Jones. In California a ballot proposition in November comes under the guise of “campaign finance reform,” but it is the first stage of the same fight: to end democracy in the workplace, public and private, and to silence the political voice of those who work for a living.

In a state without a right-to-work law, if the majority of workers in a private company vote for a union, then all the workers can be required to pay dues and the union must represent all the workers. In a right-to-work state the majority does not rule. Where there is an elected union that negotiates a collective bargaining agreement to secure fair wages, safe working conditions and needed benefits, federal law requires the union to represent all of the workers. The workers, however, are not required to join the union or pay the dues that support negotiating contracts and resolving grievances. Unions lose the resources that enable them to represent the workers and the unions are seriously weakened.

Recently I attended the Centennial Symposium for the Bread and Roses Strike in Lawrence, Massachusetts. We were sitting in the old Everett Mill, in the very room where the first young immigrant women called out “Short Pay” and 20,000 textile workers marched out of the factories on a cold January day in 1912. AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka told the crowd “today has to be more than a commemoration. We must also galvanize ourselves to meet the struggles of the present and the future.” He was “looking to the past for lessons for the future.” There are historical lessons that expand on the approach used in Ohio.

In 1958, five such “right-to-work” ballot efforts were defeated under a national campaign led by Eleanor Roosevelt, architect of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and first lady of the world. The debate had taken a dramatic turn after the 1956 election victory for Republicans. Ten years after the Taft-Hartley Act became law, 18 states had taken advantage of Section 14b and passed right-to-work laws. In 1958 six more states had proposed laws on the ballot: California, Colorado, Idaho, Kansas, Ohio, and Washington.

On July 9, 1958, Mrs. Roosevelt and former New York Senator Herbert H. Lehman announced the formation of the National Council for Industrial Peace to oppose right-to-work legislation. They proclaimed that it was time for “all right-thinking citizens, from all walks of life,” to protect the nation’s economy and the workers’ union security from “the predatory and misleading campaigns now being waged by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and National Association of Manufacturers.” Seventy-five years old and in failing health, Roosevelt plunged into the fray of a hard-fought political campaign.

The New York Times called the employer and labor campaigns a “hard sell approach to the electorate by television, radio, motion picture, billboard, pamphlet, comic book, newspaper advertisement, bumper sign, button, match box, shopping bag and even a Halloween trick-or-treat kit.” Labor estimated that in Ohio alone, 4 million cups of coffee were poured at gatherings designed to “drown a proposed constitutional amendment in a sea of hostile votes.”

Eleanor Roosevelt was on familiar ground. This issue had been debated in the Human Rights Commission at the United Nations which she chaired. Earlier she had told the readers of her "My Day" column that government should not force people to join unions, but when collective bargaining was in place, a majority of the workers should be able to decide on a requirement to join the union to protect their hard-won status. There was no right to be a “free rider,” to get the benefits of the union without paying for them. She wrote: “To protect collective bargaining and the interests of the workers are, in my view, the right thing to do and when state laws oppose this, I think the state laws are wrong.” 

Roosevelt reported that a survey in Indiana found that only 4 percent of university students knew what a right-to-work law actually was. I doubt that figure is much different today. She devoted her 1958 Labor Day column to explaining the misnomer.  She contended that the laws were a “political maneuver of employers” and were being deceptively presented as protecting workers rights. The laws were aimed at the destruction of human rights and did not concern themselves “one iota with human rights or the right to work.” Rather, she wrote, they were a “calculated and cunning smokescreen to beguile the innocent and unknowing” into weakening unions.

When the California ballot initiative used what she called “weasel words” and sought to give the impression that her husband had supported “the concept embodied in the so-called right-to-work laws,” she said that “the American public understands very well that Franklin Delano Roosevelt would never have supported such a reactionary doctrine.”

The ballots were defeated in all the states but Kansas. Charlotte Walker, from Seattle, wrote to Mrs. Roosevelt that “In your long service to mankind you have performed many outstanding services, but this Council will some day be the greatest tribute of a gracious lady.”

The issue would not go away. Roosevelt followed-up in the AFL-CIO newspaper with an article titled “Why I am Opposed to Right-to-Work Laws.” She began with “I am opposed to this legislation because it is narrow in concept, punitive and discriminatory against wage-earners, and is designed solely to benefit employers. I am opposed to it because its real aim is to destroy American labor.” 

Over 50 years after Eleanor Roosevelt’s defense of unions and opposition to right-to-work laws, there are now 23 states with such laws. While effects on jobs, wages and the economy are complex, a review of the research by American Rights at Work, a non-profit advocacy organization, found that the laws offer “no protection or economic benefits for workers…but drive down wages, benefits, and overall living standards for everyone.” They conclude that right-to-work laws “do not create jobs or improve a state’s business climate.”

What we learn from Eleanor Roosevelt and from Ohio is the need for a vibrant, coordinated, very public debate across the country and in every state considering right-to-work laws. We need to use the media she had at hand--comic books, Halloween kits and coffee included—as well as the new social media to educate citizens about the effects of these laws. We need to call on respected public figures to speak out against further weakening of our rights at work

Roosevelt argued that union security, which is greatly weakened by right-to-work laws, “is in keeping with the American system of democratic government, which says that the will of the majority shall prevail.” The final lesson for us today is what Eleanor Roosevelt told CIO convention delegates: “We can’t just talk. We have got to act.”

 
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