Fifty years ago, about 29 percent of American workers were part of a union and the nation’s middle class received a record-high share of the overall national income. The tide has turned in recent years, however, and that union density figure has steadily declined — now hovering around 11 percent. Middle class share of the nation’s overall income is also at a near-record low.
Today, more than half of U.S. states are so-called “right-to-work,” meaning “closed shops” — where employees can be required to pay union dues — are prohibited. This makes it harder for unions to afford to operate and thus weakens them, part of what Roland Zullo, a research scientist at the University of Michigan’s Institute for Research on Labor, Employment, and the Economy calls “a larger package to undermine worker power.”
“Right-to-work” laws have been proven to not only reduce the number of people who are part of a union, but also the average wages and benefits for workers in those states. Still, more states are considering their own right-to-work laws and scores of members of Congress want to see similar legislation enacted on a national level.
What’s more, they could soon have a champion in the White House. Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump has said he is “100 percent” for these anti-union laws, as they give “great flexibility to the companies.” The 2016 election could be critical for determining the future of right-to-work and other anti-union policies — but some of the most fervent supporters of these measures are receiving financial help from a surprising source: labor union PACs.
Union officials say the hundreds of thousands of dollars in political action committee donations to these lawmakers since the start of 2015 come despite, rather than because of, their support for national anti-union legislation — but at least one labor expert warns that the unions might someday regret that spending. After Republican majorities in historically pro-labor states like Wisconsin and Michigan snuck through anti-labor legislation, it is entirely plausible that a GOP Congress and Trump White House could do the same on a national level.
‘Right To Work For Less’
Federal labor laws laws give states the power to ban “closed shops,” workplaces where only union members or those who pay the union an “agency” fee may work. Proponents of these state restrictions — generally corporate interests — call them “right-to-work” laws. Opponents call them “right to work for less.” If a state passes one, unions must bargain for every employee, even those who do not join or pay money.
In February 2012, Indiana’s right-to-work law went into effect, making it the first state to adopt one since 2001. Dan Nicholson, a union meat-cutter for Kroger, spoke out against the law, noting not only a Notre Dame study that demonstrated how right-to-work states tend to have lower wages, but also his own surprise in learning a Kroger employee in Texas with a similar job made $1.70 less per hour and had inferior benefits.
After the law was enacted, the percentage of Hoosier state workers in a union dropped from 11.3 percent the year before to just 9.2 that year — and real median income in the state has grown more slowly than in the nation as a whole.
Rather than continue to push on a state-by-state basis, Congressional Republicans have proposed a National Right-to-Work Act (NRWA), which would make it the policy in all 50 states. So far in this Congress, 29 U.S. Senators and 127 U.S. Representatives have signed on.
Who is driving this effort on a national level? Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) and Rep. Steve King (R-IA), two men who ironically are typically strong supporters of states’ rights, are the lead sponsors of the NRWA.
Paul’s 28 Senate co-sponsors include some of the most powerful members of the Senate: Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), Majority Whip John Cornyn (R-TX), and Senate President Pro Tempore Orrin Hatch (R-UT). King’s 126 House co-sponsors make up a majority of the House Republican Conference.
Zullo noted that Republicans have backed right-to-work bills, in large part, to weaken a key component of the Democratic base: “In general, [labor unions] have been more supportive of Democrats and Democrats have been more supportive, in turn, of pushing progressive labor reform.” Destroying unions would deny Democratic candidates a key source of campaign donations, volunteers, and organization.
Unions have been clear about the existential threat to their future posed by a national right-to-work law. Bill Samuel, director of government affairs for the AFL-CIO, the umbrella federation for 56 unions representing more than 12 million workers, emphasized that federal NRWA is designed to undercut unions across the country. “It’s meant to weaken the ability of unions to organize and bargain,” he said. “And that’s the point: it’s freedom for corporations to exercise total control and avoid having to deal with the collective voice of their workers.”
John Risch, national legislative director of SMART Transportation Division (the United Transportation Union) called the proposal, “awful” and “terrible.” “Its very design is to undermine workers’ ability to organize effectively and negotiate decent wages and working conditions. Its intent is to try to de-unionize America and to lower wages.”
But in the face of this attack on the rights of unions, at least 31 union political action committees have contributed a total of more than $534,000 to 82 members — all Republicans — who signed on as supporters of the NRWA in the 113th Congress. According to campaign finance data through June 2016, posted by the Center for Responsive Politics, most of the legislation’s sponsors and co-sponsors have received some labor union financial support.
A ThinkProgress review of its political action committee disbursements for the 2015–2016 campaign cycle found that Risch’s union PAC made a total of at least $21,000 in donations to nine Congressional incumbents who had co-sponsored the NRWA in the last Congress. And they are far from the only union doing it.
Very Strange Bedfellows
The Air Line Pilots Association (ALPA), the largest airline pilot union in the world, has given the most out of any union to NRWA supporters in Congress, contributing at least $164,500 in PAC money this election cycle to 49 U.S. representatives and senators who were co-sponsors in the last Congress.
Ten unions have given donations to five or more NRWA backers. Collectively, ALPA, the National Air Traffic Controllers Association (NATCA), and the American Maritime Officers (AMO) have contributed nearly 60 percent of the union money received by these anti-labor incumbents.
NATCA has given at least $80,500 to 34 NRWA co-sponsors and AMO has contributed at least $70,000 to 18 co-sponsors so far this campaign cycle.
The contributions represent a small, but not insignificant, percentage of these unions’ total donations to members of Congress. So far, NRWA backers have received around 16 percent of the total money AMO has donated to 2016 Congressional candidates, ALPA has given about 12 percent of its Congressional donations to NRWA supporters, and NATCA has contributed roughly 7 percent of its donations to the NRWA backers.
Other unions helping to bankroll five or more NRWA co-sponsors include the Allied Pilots Association, the American Federation of Government Employees, the International Association of Fire Fighters, the National Association of Farm Service Agency County Employees, the National Rural Letter Carriers Association, and the Seafarers International Union PACs.
The donations have done little to change the mind of these recipients; the vast majority of the NRWA backers from the 113th Congress who have received union money this cycle still signed on as sponsors or co-sponsors in the current 114th Congress.
What Are They Thinking?
According to the University of Michigan’s Roland Zullo, most unions practice “political volunteerism,” meaning they “try to support the candidates that, at the moment, appear to be the most friendly to their interest, regardless of political party.” In conservative districts, they might back the “lesser evil,” even if he or she has a less than stellar labor record.
Certain unions, he added, like maritime officers, air traffic controllers, and pilots, “draw heavily from people with a military background,” and skew more conservative. “By spreading the wealth around, you don’t alienate those members who wonder why you’re supporting only liberal candidates all the time.” While labor unions overall give the vast majority of their PAC dollars to Democrats, transportation sector unions like NATCA, AMO, and ALPA tend to be a bit more bipartisan.
SMART Transportation Division’s Risch was candid about his organization’s donations. “Why is it we give money to Republicans, especially someone bastard enough to sponsor ‘right to work for less’ legislation? … Some of these people are in pretty strategic spots in Congress. We do our best to work with them. Sometimes that means attending [fundraising] events and talking to them.”
Risch added that at times his union finds itself “between a rock and a hard place,” as many Congressional Republicans are “viciously anti-labor,” but a number of the union’s members haul coal and are out of work, in part, due to regulation of the industry pushed by Democrats. “Our guys want to work, so we’re trying to do things to keep them employed,” he said.
ThinkProgress reached out to the other nine unions with five or more contributions to NRWA backers and received similar responses from many, noting their opposition to the NRTW but their simultaneous focus on other issues. NATCA spokesman Doug Church said that his is “not a one issue union,” and is focused on “aviation-related issues as well as labor law and federal employee rights and benefits matters.” National Rural Letter Carriers Association spokesman Paul Swartz said in addition to union rights, its donations aim to “preserve the jobs of roughly 50,000 rural letter [carriers]” and went “to members of Congress who support the continuation of 6-day mail delivery.” A Seafarers spokesman declined to comment on donations, but said the union is “100 percent against” national right-to-work legislation.
Kevin O’Connor, assistant to the general president for the International Association of Fire Fighters (IAFF) called right-to-work a “bankrupt concept” and a “catch-phrase to demonstrate your opposition to unionism.” Its donations to some co-sponsors, he said, were because the group is “not a one issue organization. We look at members of Congress in totality and make our decisions accordingly.”
Another factor, according to the AFL-CIO’s Samuel, is that, in the current Congress at least, the bill seems unlikely to unlikely to become law, with a 60 vote supermajority currently required in the Senate and a Democrat in the White House. “There’s no way President Obama would sign that,” he explained, though he conceded, “it could probably get the votes in the House.”
“We would pay far more attention to it if it looked like it was a probability,” Risch of SMART Transportation Division said, adding, “our tendency is to look at what’s actually moving and the probability of something. [We] get engaged in those issues.”
Everything Changes In A Trump Administration
While national right-to-work legislation indeed seems unlikely to move this year, things could drastically change if Republicans win the White House in November. And some labor experts warn that unions are underestimating the disastrous threat that having a pro-NRWA majority in Congress could pose should Trump win. It’s happened before.
“All elections have consequences,” IAFF’s O’Connor conceded. “Who ever would have thought that, in the cradle of the United Auto Workers, the home of Jimmy Hoffa, Michigan would ever become a right-to-work state?” With a Republican-controlled state legislature and Republican Gov. Rick Snyder breaking his pledge to eschew such legislation, “all the stars were aligned” in 2012 and Michigan became a right-to-work state.
Scot Ross, executive director of One Wisconsin Now, recalled a similar shock in the Badger State. “[Republican Gov. Scott] Walker was asked over and over again during his 2014 campaign if he would push for right-to-work. Over and over and over again he said he wasn’t interested in that.” In early 2015, the Republican legislature “rammed” a bill through the legislature through a fast-tracked procedure. “The turnaround was like a couple of days — introduced the bill, it was done, through, signed.”
How could such a sneak-attack happen on the federal level? First of all, Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump has enthusiastically embraced the concept.
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“I like right-to-work. My position on right-to-work is 100 percent,” Trump said in a February radio interview. “I love the right to work… I like it better because it’s lower,” he added. His running mate, Indiana Gov. Mike Pence, co-sponsored the NRWA during his time in Congress and has fiercely defended his state’s right-to-work law as Indiana’s governor, though under the law the state’s economy has fared worse than the nation’s as a whole.
In addition to nominating an anti-labor candidate, the 2016 Republican National Committee’s platform, adopted at their Cleveland convention in July, affirms the party’s support for making right-to-work the reality across the country: “We support the right of states to enact Right-to-Work laws and call for a national law to protect the economic liberty of the modern workforce,” it states.
Jefferson Cowie, a history professor at Vanderbilt University, said that these unions backing pro-NRWA incumbents “are probably less concerned than they should be about right-to-work.” Their support, he added, “could certainly come back to haunt them, but that’s why God invented [the Senate’s filibuster rule]. ”
But that’s only true as long as the filibuster remains in place.
Should Trump win, the AFL-CIO’s Samuel predicted, “the Congressional elections would not turn out well either for us. I don’t know if the Republicans would have 60 [Senate votes], but if they change the rules or not is hard to predict.” Much like Democrats changed the Senate rules in 2013 to allow most confirmations to require a simple majority, a simple majority of Senate Republicans could eliminate the filibuster entirely. And some prominent Republicans have advocated doing just that.
While Cowie was unsure whether Senate Majority Leader McConnell (R-KY) would actually support such an effort, he said, “I would put nothing past that guy. Nothing.” And that could mean, with little fanfare, that what happened in Wisconsin and Michigan could happen to America.
Labor scholar and author Michael D. Yates predicted that should Republicans win full control in November, labor would have to “try to work with Trump and the Republicans, offering some labor cover to these scoundrels,” in hopes that they’d stop the bill. But, he added, the willingness of some unions to support anti-labor candidates is quite risky. “For the working class as a whole, such thinking and acting are disastrous,” he said.
Research shows that weakening unions does not just hurt Democrats and union workers; it also hurts non-union workers. Gordon Lafer, an associate professor at the University of Oregon’s Labor Education and Research Center, observed that right-to-work states see lower wages and pensions, on average, for everyone. “Right-to-work decreases wages for union and non-union [workers] by about 3 percent [and lowers] chances of getting health insurance.” A 2011 study by the Economic Policy Institute found that if right-to-work state rates were applied nationally, 2 million fewer workers would get health insurance and 3.8 million fewer would receive pensions.
And if right-to-work becomes a national law, unions would be in serious trouble. Labor expert Philip Dine, who authored the book State of the Unions, noted that since the 1950s and 1960s, the percentage of the American workforce in a union has dropped from more than a third to just about 12 percent. The recent growth of anti-union state laws has made that worse. “Labor is in an existential fight for its life now — and it has been for the last three or four years,” he said. “[Unions] need to take a deep breath and tell people why labor still matters.”
Evan Popp is an intern at ThinkProgress.