BEAM: Right-To-Work Is Back In The News

Organized labor won a rare victory last week when an Indiana county judge ruled part of that state’s new right to work law was unconstitutional. The judge said the law wrongly requires unions to represent workers who don’t pay union dues.

Louisiana has a right to work law. In fact, it has had two in the last 60 years. So the Indiana ruling will definitely create some interest among labor unions in the state.

Section 14(b) of the Taft-Hartley Act, which was passed by Congress in 1947, gave states the authority to enact right to work laws. Those laws forbid unions and employers from entering into agreements that require employees to join a union and pay dues and fees in order to keep a job.

Florida earlier in 1943 became the first state to pass a right to work law. Louisiana became the 17th state with a right to work law that was approved in 1954 during the administration of Gov. Robert Kennon, a conservative Democrat.

Gov. Earl K. Long two years later made repeal of the law one of his major legislative goals, and he succeeded. Passage didn’t come easily. The Associated Press said crowds along the rails in the state House were quiet, in contrast to stormy sessions in the Senate. However, there were 16 state troopers in plain clothes assigned to the House chamber.

The AP said Long, the younger brother of Huey P. Long, carried on a running feud with anyone who opposed his programs.

“The fiery 60-year-old governor stalked the House and Senate floor, buttonholing members, heckling opponents and shouting instructions to his leaders,” The AP said.

Support for right to work surfaced again in 1976 following union violence at the Jupiter Chemical Co. site in west Calcasieu Parish and a similar incident in 1975 at the Ellender Bridge in Hackberry. Labor leaders insist the violence didn’t play that big a role in the passage of right to work, but it definitely had an impact.

Former Gov. Edwin W. Edwards, a longtime supporter of organized labor, said he would sign a right to work bill if the Legislature passed one, and he stuck to his promise. He also urged supporters and opponents to accept the Legislature’s decision “without malice, violence or vindictiveness.”

“We will not tolerate any violation of personal or property rights,” Edwards said. “The passage of a right to work bill gives nobody the right to do violence to anyone.”

The governor added, “Right to work may turn out to be a blessing in disguise, even for those in organized labor.”

Edwards would get a lot of argument on that score today from union leaders. They have fought the legislation at every turn, calling the law the “right to work for less.”

The AFL-CIO said the laws only make unions weaker and lower wages and living standards for all workers in any state. It insists workers in right to work states earn an average of $5,680 less a year than workers in other states.

The national organization said right to work states have less jobbased health insurance, higher poverty and infant mortality rates, less investment in education and higher rates of death on the job.

Right to work supporters disagree, of course, insisting the laws are incentives for economic development and job creation.

Republican Gov. Mitch Daniels signed the Indiana law Feb. 1, 2012. It was the first state in the Rust Belt to approve right to work. Passage involved some spirited debate and a walkout by Democrats in the Indiana House.

“This law won’t be a magic answer, but we’ll be far better off with it,” Daniels said. “No one’s wages will go down, no one’s benefits will be reduced and the right to organize and bargain collectively is untouched and intact.”

Michigan last December became the 24th state to pass a right to work law. Provisions of the law went into effect on March 28 of this year.

The Indiana attorney general has already filed notice the state will appeal the county judge’s ruling to the Indiana Supreme Court. And right to work supporters are quick to note the county judge dismissed four of the five allegations in the suit filed by members of the International Union of Operating Engineers Local 150, which is located in northwest Indiana.

Unions are also attacking the law on another front. Local 150 is appealing a federal court ruling upholding Indiana’s law. The United Steel Workers is also challenging the federal ruling.

The odds of the union challenges being successful aren’t good, but you can understand why their leaders are encouraged about this latest development in Indiana.

One thing we do know. Union membership has been on the decline in recent years. Right to work isn’t the only problem facing organized labor, but it’s at or near the top of the list of reasons why the movement has lost influence and membership.

Republican governors control 30 of the 50 states and many of their legislatures are firmly in GOP hands. That isn’t expected to change much in the near future, so don’t look for the right to work issue to take center stage here or in other states anytime soon.

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