Notes on a Theory…

Thoughts on politics, law, & social science

What Would a Real ‘Right to Work’ Look Like?

with 15 comments

I just asked this question on Twitter, and realized I wasn’t going to be able to explain it  in 140 characters.  So I thought I’d elaborate here. First, the question:

There has been a lot of talk about how we need to reframe the horribly inaptly named “right to work” laws, which essentially require unions to represent workers who refuse to join or otherwise support the union in any way.  Since no one is ever required to join a union, this whole framing in nonsense, a cover for a policy designed to weaken unions that can’t be defended on the merits.

‘Right to work for less’ is a common one, but it is fairly clunky.  I like the idea of ‘loafer laws’ or even better, ‘freeloader laws’ (that one is from Matt Bruenig) which emphasize the free rider problem here.  I also like ‘no rights at work’ law.  Regardless, the question I’m asking is a different one.

What would a real right to work look like?  Instead of reframing the right-wing policy with a different name, we could attach a different policy to the name (in fact we could and probably should do both).  Rhetorically, we’d respond to the call for a ‘right to work’ by saying, ‘absolutely we need a real right to work, which would mean X’  There are, as I see it, two options.

The first is the one I mentioned in my tweet – just cause employment laws.  These laws, which presently exist only in Montana, require employers to have a legitimate reason before firing an employee.  This is opposed to at will employment, where employers can fire for any reason or even no reason, as long as they don’t run afoul of various anti-discrimination laws. (It’s worth pointing out that because outside of these laws employers can fire at will, enforcing such anti-discrimination laws is more difficult). In essence, such laws ensure a basic level of due process, and reduce the arbitrary authority of employers while leaving intact legitimate authority.

Another way to reframe right to work would be a federal guarantee of a job, along the lines that Sandy Darity has proposed.  “His National Investment Employment Corps does that, he says, by creating real jobs that pay a minimum of $20,000 a year and $10,000 in benefits, including medical coverage and retirement savings,” along the lines of the Works Progress Administration and the Civilian Conservation Corps during the Great Depression. This is a quite literal ‘right to work.’

Does that make sense? And if so, what do you think?

[Update] Richard Yeselson was tweeting about the first question, and offered “right to shirk.” I like that.

Written by David Kaib

December 10, 2012 at 11:15 pm

15 Responses

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  1. Just cause employment laws in every state could dramatically increase the quality of working life for millions of Americans, particularly those working in low wage jobs. Protection from being fired for any arbitrary reason really could be called a right to work.

    I like Darity’s idea too. It would be fantastic if the Federal government was committed to pursuing full employment, and was willing and able to step in as an employer of last resort. Franklin Roosevelt spoke of the right to a useful and remunerative job in 1944, and Congress did push for a full employment bill the next year, which ended up a shadow of what it originally was. In the mid-70s, the Humphrey-Hawkins Full Employment bill began as a proposal for a guaranteed right to a job. That law too ended up gutted by both Congress and the Carter administration. I don’t hold out hope that any full employment bill with that level of economic planning could get passed today, but it’s encouraging to know that there have been occasions in the recent past where government has proposed genuinely pro-worker policies.


    December 11, 2012 at 11:12 am

  2. Give us a livable Universal Basic Income and I think a lot of these problems would work themselves out.


    June 10, 2014 at 7:43 pm

    • I’m pragmatic. I’ll take either that or a job guarantee (although my opening bid is both).

      David Kaib

      June 10, 2014 at 8:41 pm

  3. […] What Would a Real ‘Right to Work’ Look Like? (Notes on a Theory) […]

  4. “require unions to represent workers who refuse to join or otherwise support the union in any way.”

    Oh, so the union is forced to operate? If the union feels like it is being taken advantage of, why bother? Just shut down the union and make the thankless workers go it alone. Nobody is forcing the union to remain in business.

    What’s stopping the union from returning the favor? Have the union stop representing workers at all, just collect the mandatory dues while the union bosses sit on their duffs. Turnabout is fair play, after all, and some states still require workers to join a union and pay dues, regardless of the quality of representation offered.


    September 3, 2014 at 1:47 am

    • If you have an argument for why a union should be required to represent non-members, you haven’t made it yet. And “if you don’t like the indefensible condition the law puts on you, you can choose to stop doing what you’re doing” would (if we accepted it) literally justify any law imaginable. And you don’t believe it, because if you did, you’d say “if workers don’t like the quality of their representation, they should just work somewhere else.”

      “What’s stopping the union from returning the favor?” The law is. As I said.

      David Kaib

      September 3, 2014 at 7:23 am

      • That is a consequence of the union enjoying exclusive rights to represent the workers for a business. If the union bosses don’t want to represent all workers, then they shouldn’t push for exclusive collective bargaining through unionization in the first place.

        The biggest problem facing unions today is that they are rightly viewed as primarily political entities rather than as labor entities. As unions have morphed from primarily labor organizations to primarily political organizations, millions of workers have stopped seeing return on their dues.

        No worker is forced to join any union, but in some states they can lose their job if they don’t join one. Even in the most business-friendly right to work state, the unions can still recruit workers to join and participate in unions. The only thing lacking now is the perceived value to workers for the dues being paid.


        September 3, 2014 at 10:43 am

  5. […] What Would a Real ‘Right to Work’ Look Like? (Notes on a Theory) […]

  6. Reblogged this on Poor as Folk.


    September 3, 2014 at 7:44 am

  7. “That is a consequence of the union enjoying exclusive rights to represent the workers for a business.”

    Enjoy is a weird word to choose, since it’s a legal requirement, and one what that is imposed regardless of whether workers join or not. Congrats – do work on behalf of people whether they are members or not! We’re having a conversation of whether this trade off is fair. I provided an argument for why it’s not. You repeat the trade off.

    Interestingly, I’m not convinced that an anti-union individual has a great deal of insight into the problems of unions or of workers. But as for return on dues, union workers are paid better, and have all sorts of protections non-union workers lack. Maybe you prefer they get lower pay and lose those protections. But that’s you, not them.

    David Kaib

    September 3, 2014 at 9:58 pm

    • If the terms of establishing a union are so harmful, why doesn’t the union instead focus on providing counseling and legal advice to union-minded individuals?

      Why not go to all the union minded workers at Walmart, for example, and say “We don’t want to have to represent all those people that won’t pay dues, so we will be your personal labor consultants for a small fee.”

      They could get advice on what wages to demand, what safety and OSHA standards to demand, legal advice on how to deal with problems, etc. They would have all of the benefits of a union, without having to represent freeloaders.

      Instead, the union insists on forming a union and thereby injecting itself into the business, to have exclusive rights to interface with business on behalf of workers.

      If a worker derives 5 cents worth of workplace benefit from union representation they aren’t paying for that is unfair. However, some workers may feel like the existence of the union and its political actions are doing more than 5 cents worth of harm to them, more than offsetting any workplace benefit they might receive.

      The tradeoff is also justified in the sense that it’s an all-or-none proposition, with two unfair outcomes. It is unfair to have a freeloader derive his 5 cents of benefit for nothing, but it would be equally unfair to force all workers to pay $1 of dues if they are only gaining 5 cents worth of benefit.


      September 4, 2014 at 1:31 pm

  8. Those who chose not to pay dues should be dropped. They are free to negotiate their own contract
    (good luck with that) The union should have the right to notify employer that the employee is no longer covered by union contract. Work means work, not freeloading from others. There is a lot of work that needs to be done, could be done. A lot of infrastructure needs done. A lot of “private” contracts cost more than could be done by a government program. My mother used to say WPA-we piddle around. So even a government run program needs a right to fire.

    John Adams

    September 4, 2014 at 8:30 am

  9. […] I come across this great blog post asking “What would a real ‘right to work’ look like“? I love proposed solutions like this. It gives me […]

  10. […] What Would a Real ‘Right to Work’ Look Like? (Notes on a Theory) […]

  11. […] What Would a Real ‘Right to Work’ Look Like? (Notes on a Theory) […]

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