Republican Senators Propose Linking LGBT Rights To Union Busting

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Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-KY).

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) and Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) are trying to attach a national so-called “right-to-work” law to the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA), according to Roll Call. The two filed an amendment connecting ENDA to the anti-union measure hours before the discrimination ban passed a key hurdle on its way to its first floor vote in the Senate in six years. The proposal would effectively require workers to trade protections from discrimination on the basis of sexuality and gender identity for their rights to strong union protections from other employer abuses.

A person can be fired for being gay or transgendered in a majority of states, and ENDA would ban employers from discriminating against LGBT people nationwide. ENDA has languished for 20 years, but a procedural vote on Monday night put it on track for its first floor vote in the Senate since 2007.

The idea behind right-to-work laws is much more complicated than the name suggests. The laws prohibit unions from requiring dues payments from all employees in a unionized workplace. That creates a free-rider problem whereby workers who stand to gain higher wages and better job conditions from a successful union contract bargaining effort can refuse to help pay for those efforts. While the laws are often billed as rescuing workers from being forced to pay union dues, workers can already refuse to contribute to the political efforts of the union that represents their interests on the job site.

Despite their branding, right-to-work laws are designed to weaken unions, which in turn drives down wages. Workers in right-to-work states like Michigan and Indiana make about $1,500 less per year than those in other states. States with strong unions have a stronger middle class than others. Right-to-work laws don’t boost job creation, either, according to studies of the 22 states that operate under the policy. Workplace safety and health insurance benefits are also weaker in right-to-work states.

Yet with help and funding from the business community, conservative activists have made a concerted effort to advance right-to-work laws at the state level in recent years, with 19 states considering versions of the law in 2011 and 2012.

The move to connect anti-worker laws to ENDA is particularly galling given that unions are often the only form of protection that LGBT workers enjoy. In the 21 states where a person can be fired for her sexuality and the 33 states where a person can be fired for his gender identity, union contracts can offer some shelter from discriminatory bosses. McConnell and Paul may be trying to divide two major components of the Democratic party’s base, but the equality and labor movements have worked in concert for years on a variety of issues.