The Blog

Labor's Love Lost

The unions have all but given up on repealing right-to-work laws.

3:30 PM, Sep 2, 2009 • By FRED BARNES
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

Organized labor has all but given up on what was once its top priority. No, I'm not referring to card check. It's section 14(b) of the Taft-Hartley Act that's no longer being targeted by the AFL-CIO. If that provision sounds arcane, it's not. It allows states to enact right-to-work laws that are the bane of union organizers. They protect the right of workers not to join a union. In effect, these statutes outlaw the "closed shop," which forces all workers to sign up where a union exists, and the "union shop," requiring them to pay dues even if they aren't union members.

Repealing 14(b) was labor's paramount goal for decades. But Rich Trumka, who is slated to become AFL-CIO president later this month, said Wednesday: "There's no active effort right now." Killing 14(b) is merely an "intention." At the moment, the labor federation's agenda consists of pushing for congressional passage of ObamaCare, card check, and labor law reform.

Let me put this in context. Even with large Democratic majorities in the Senate and House, plus a liberal Democratic president, labor has abandoned hope of scuttling 14(b). This is an important, but so far little noticed, defeat for organized labor. If right-to-work isn't even on the table in what is surely the most pro-union Congress in decades, then it's dead, at least for the foreseeable future.
In fact, when I asked Trumka about it at a breakfast sponsored by the Christian Science Monitor, he seemed surprised the issue had been broached at all. I interpreted this to mean that overcoming the opposition to card check is such an all-consuming task of organized labor -- with success looking less and less likely -- that right-to-work has fallen off the radar of labor leaders.

Yet the provision -- Taft-Hartley was passed in 1947 -- has had an enormous impact on business and the workforce in America and a decidedly negative effect on labor's organizing drives. Twenty-two states have passed right-to-work laws, Oklahoma being most recent to adopt one in 2001. (Colorado rejected a right-to-work referendum in 2008.) Meanwhile, the rate of unionization of the private workforce has dropped from roughly 35 percent in the 1950s to less than 10 percent today.

And 14(b) has dramatically altered the economic landscape of the country. It's not a coincidence that the Sun Belt has boomed in recent years. All the Southern states have right-to-work laws, including Texas and Florida. Once business backwaters, they're now where economic growth is concentrated.

Absent 14(b), foreign automakers would not have located plants across the South -- so-called transplants. They are entirely non-union. For Japanese automakers in particular, dealing with a union is simply not part of their business plan. In an earlier time, foreign plants would have built in the heavily unionized industrial corridor reaching across the Northeast and Midwest. No more. That corridor isn't called the Rust Belt for nothing. It's where industrial jobs have dried up.

In contrast, Texas has become a jobs machine, creating more new jobs recently than the other 49 states combined. And right-to-work is a major factor. Jobs are fleeing California, with its strong unions and high taxes, by the hundreds of thousands. They are migrating to Arizona, Nevada, Utah, and Idaho, all right-to-work states.

On the flip side of the failure of labor leaders to rid themselves of 14(b), there's a victor, Reed Larson and the National Right to Work Committee (NRTW). Larson's proselytizing turned right-to-work into an issue embraced almost unanimously by conservatives and Republicans.

NRTW, besides protecting 14(b), still has work to do. There are 28 states that NRTW refers to as "forced-unionism states." Organized labor, while conceding 14(b) for now, organized labor won't let them become right-to-work states without a struggle.

Fred Barnes is executive editor of THE WEEKLY STANDARD.