The Tennessee State Senate voted on Monday to approve Senate Joint Resolution 2, which will add so-called “right to work” laws to the Tennessee Constitution.
“Right to work,” despite its misleading name, has faced a mountain of criticism from both the right and the left for the obvious and measurable negative effects that the legislation has on working people.
While data on decreasing wages and working conditions in right-to-work states is largely inarguable, I think it quite important that we also consider a somewhat less quantifiable effect of the implementation of right to work and the subsequent destruction of labor unions. I’m talking, here, about the tremendous political power which has been robbed from working people in this and other right-to-work states.
While right-to-work laws promise some form of freedom of movement for laborers, they function very differently in reality. Unionized workers receive many benefits from a powerful union. Higher wages, vacation time, health benefits, and more are achieved through hard work and collective bargaining by a workplace’s union, sometimes even involving dangerous and hard-fought strikes. RTW allows new workers to join the workplace, enjoy the spoils of all of those hard fought victories, and still not join the union or pay dues.
As Noam Chomsky once said, “right to work means the right to scrounge.”
Like many tactics designed to break the political power of working people, right-to-work laws offer short term benefits while obfuscating their long-term effects. Over time, labor unions lose their ability to build their ranks, especially when every benefit which they provide can be enjoyed by workers without paying dues or joining the union. Eventually, the unions whither away and leave workers isolated and disorganized to be crushed by the owning class.
As we discussed earlier, this manifests most obviously in declining wages for workers in right-to-work states, but it also carriers political and psychological effects which might be less obvious.
Firstly, unions can act as excellent spaces for young and talented organizers to build the skills and support systems necessary for even larger political efforts, be they electoral or otherwise. Our state government is heavily populated by the so-called “Professional Managerial Class” or PMC’s like lawyers and doctors. This has several causes, but not the least of which is the hefty time and monetary cost of building a voter base from nothing. The PMC class is able to do this easily with their larger pocketbooks and help from many corporations, but working folks must look to important spaces like labor unions to build this support and experience if they hope to move toward broader organizing projects and represent their fellow workers without being corrupted by outside money and influence.
Beyond this, unions act as political education spaces for the working masses of people. I say this as a member of a blue-collar family and a member of a union myself, working life can be heavy and exhausting and political issues often seem secondary and unimportant. A union, however, can ensure that its members are constantly aware and engaged, not in politics as some kind of abstract concept on the news, but politics as the act of organizing our neighbors to assert our will on the issues that affect us personally. This is done, not from the top down, by telling working people what we must believe, but by providing a space workers to organize and claim power, that we might discuss and decide what is best for us. They allow us to demand more, not only of our elected officials, but our employers as well.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, widespread unionization can create a legitimate check upon the political and economic power of the owning class, and provide powerful mechanisms for workers to assert their political power. Today, our local, state, and federal government are awash in corporate donations, not to mention a vast majority of our nation’s politicians have little to no experience with blue collar work. Simply put, there is no legitimate workers’ party in the United States, and much of our government exists principally to serve the needs of a few competing interests at the top of the economy, with very little in the way of major change being delivered by either party.
Unions provide a different kind of power which is only accessible to the working masses. They wrestle control over the productive capacity of our entire economy away from a handful of owners and, at least in some way, back into the hands of the laborers. This is real, non-electoral power that could move mountains in the American economy.
When looking over this short and non-exhaustive list of the benefits of a union: providing political platform, education, and power to the working people of Tennessee and the entire country, it should come as no surprise that Shane Reeves and Dawn White, both fairly wealthy business owners with nearly $100,000 in corporate campaign contributions between the two of them in 2020 alone, have joined the rest of the Tennessee GOP in their war against organized labor.
The simple fact is this: a war on unions is a war on working people, and “right to work” is a war on unions.
Solidarity forever, and down with SJR 2.