Right to work benefits not clear

Ian Pajer-Rogers |

From The Register-Herald:

by Pamela Pritt

CHARLESTON — A right to work law is making its way posthaste through the West Virginia Legislature and will land soon on Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin’s desk — ready for a potential veto and a veto override.

With a narrow 17-16 vote, Senate Republicans claimed victory on the first of their agenda bills, which also include repealing the state’s prevailing wage and creating charter schools.

Right to work — which has been dubbed “Workplace Freedom” here — means employers cannot require union membership at their businesses and, thus, unions cannot collect fees and dues from those workers who choose not to join their membership. The bill carries criminal penalties for business owners who order their employees to belong to a union. Fines range from $50 to $500 a day. 

According to the National Labor Relations Board, non-union workers are still protected by the union and enjoy the benefits that union leaders negotiate for their membership. That’s the law. The 1947 Taft-Hartley Act passed by a Republican Congress ensures that all individuals have the right to decline union membership, but still receive the benefits. Non-union members are required to pay “agency fees” to the union to cover the cost of union negotiations. 

So right to work or Workplace Freedom already exists, guaranteed for nearly 70 years. Proponents of newer right to work laws say they boost economic development by attracting business to the state, while those who oppose the measure say it’s only about further eroding unions’ power and increasing company profits.

Republicans are rolling the dice with right to work, a bill backed by the state Chamber of Commerce, the West Virginia Business and Industry Council and the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), all conservative groups. Union members, who typically support Democratic candidates, are responding with boots-on-the-ground participation in their government, showing up for committee meetings and floor sessions and holding a rally that packed the State Capitol rotunda on two floors while chanting “Right to work is wrong.”

The trouble with researching the effects of right to work laws is that the great glut of research is funded by either conservative business groups or union supporters. They get what they pay for. Reading those studies makes it hard to determine with any certainty if the law will improve West Virginia’s economic landscape or further lower wages in a state that already trolls the bottom of the nation’s average income. 

But that piece of information may provide a clue to the impetus behind right to work laws. Business-oriented groups focused on profit-making have an agenda when it comes to right to work. Unions battle that with a one-track focus in keeping their membership well-paid and well-benefited, as well as working in safe conditions. 

‘$10 an hour less’

Barry McCoy of Prosperity provides some personal insight into real-life experience with right to work. McCoy is an electrician who belongs to the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 466. He’s a self-described “gypsy” worker who travels in four states — both right to work and nonright to work — for contract jobs. Last year, he had a job in North Carolina, which has right to work, on a Google data center.

“In North Carolina the wage scale was $10 an hour less than in West Virginia,” McCoy, 61, said. “The job conditions were bad.”

He said the “hurry up and get it done” attitude swept aside the safety preventative measures he was used to on a job of that size or any job in West Virginia. 

McCoy thinks that well-funded, outside influences have taken the reins of West Virginia’s government. He said he didn’t remember Republican candidates in 2014 talking about the issues on their agenda now. 

“But when they get in there, Bill Cole starts talking about (repealing) prevailing wage and right to work. That wasn’t what we were told during the campaign,” McCoy said. 

Cole, R-Mercer, is Senate president and the lead sponsor of the right to work bill.

“No matter how many studies you look at, there’s nothing that proves being a right to work state attracts employers,” said Ken Hall, general secretary and treasurer of the Teamsters Union. “This is not an issue that is good for West Virginia. This is absolutely, clearly being promoted by out-of-state interests, wealthy people and corporations to increase their profit.”

Hall said state Republican leaders invited the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank, to come to West Virginia to promote right to work. According to sourcewatch.org, the Heritage Foundation receives funding from Charles and David Koch, Kansas billionaires, who also are “key funders” of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC). 

In fact, Hall said, ALEC provides draft legislation, and a comparison of its draft with SB1, the West Virginia bill, finds it “straight out of the playbook.”

“It’s almost word for word,” he said. “Frankly, they’re just spreading propaganda that is not fact-based and they want to increase their profit levels. That’s all this is about.” 

Read the full article from The Register-Herald.