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Vol. 76/No. 13      April 2, 2012

Class struggle, union power
is answer to ‘right-to-work’
A number of state governments are pressing so-called right-to-work laws, which prohibit “closed shop” contracts requiring workers in a unionized workplace to be dues-paying members.

Working people should vigorously oppose these and other efforts to weaken our unions, the basic defensive organizations of the working class. At the same time, it’s important to recognize that laws by themselves are not the main obstacle we face. They can’t and won’t stop workers from organizing unions and bringing the power of our class to bear—unless we let them.

On Feb. 1 Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels signed a “right-to-work” bill, as thousands of workers protested inside and outside the statehouse.

The next day Republican politicians in Minnesota announced plans to place a similar measure on the ballot in November. “Right-to-work” laws have recently been floated in other states, including Kentucky, Maine, Montana, New Hampshire and Ohio.

Twenty-three states, half of them in the South, have enacted such antiunion legislation since 1947. Indiana is the first state in more than a decade and the first in the industrial Midwest.

Daniels promotes the new law saying it will attract business and jobs to the state. “Right to work” may very well provide an incentive for some employers to choose Indiana. Of course, to them it means “the right to work for less.”

Where struggles are settled

If a “right to work” measure is conceded without a fight, it will be used to benefit the employers. On the other hand, when workers wage a strong enough fight and win enough solidarity, we can push back employer and government attacks and strengthen our unity and capacity for future struggle. As a result of such fights, the propertied rulers are sometimes compelled to change some of their laws.

A law is a piece of paper—it only has meaning to the degree it can be enforced in practice. It registers, in a distorted way, the relationship of class forces, which is decided not in the courtroom or congressional halls but in struggle—on the factory floor, on picket lines, in the streets.

In any workplace or industry, the union is the workers. Only by looking to ourselves—to mobilizing our collective power—can we resist assaults by the employer class: from the shop floor to the broader political arena.

‘Let the senators dig the coal’

In 1947, as part of the bosses’ efforts to undercut the massive labor upsurge that followed World War II, the U.S. Congress adopted the antiunion Taft-Hartley Act. It authorized numerous restrictions on the rights of workers, including the passage of “right to work” laws, which several states did.

After Taft-Hartley was enacted, 212,000 coal miners walked off the job in defiance of the new law. “Let the senators dig the coal!” was their battle cry. They won significant wage increases.

In 1978 the coal miners again waged a successful strike, standing down a Taft-Hartley strikebreaking injunction by “friend of labor” President James Carter.

More recently, port workers in Longview, Wash., won a victory against union busting. The EGT company attempted to shut out members of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union from its new grain terminal. The bosses disregarded an agreement with the city government mandating the use of ILWU labor at the port, a concession won in past struggle. After a militant fight that won broad working-class support, EGT was forced to recognize the union—while at the same time it got an agreement with the city stipulating it was not required to hire ILWU labor.

The next round is the battle against massive fines and felony charges facing ILWU militants. The outcome will be determined by the longshore workers’ ability to fight and win backing from fellow workers.

Within the labor movement, the Employee Free Choice Act, is sometimes put forward as a counter to “right to work.” This bill would grant union recognition without a vote after a majority of workers sign authorization cards. Similarly, some pin hopes on electing Democratic “friends of labor,” or look to the National Labor Relations Board to defend workers’ interests.

Looking to the capitalists’ government to weigh in on our side is the opposite of the class-struggle approach. Workers should insist that the bosses’ government stay out of our unions. We should decide who is a member, how we vote, who are our leaders and so on.

“Right-to-work” laws can’t be an excuse for not organizing unions or using union power. The fact that practically every state in the South has such legislation is sometimes portrayed as the reason unionization rates there are so low.

Those laws stem from the historic weakness of the labor movement in the South—not the other way around. This is due above all to the refusal of the union officials over decades to lead a fight against Jim Crow segregation, which kept the working class deeply divided along racial lines until it was smashed by the mass Black rights mobilizations of the 1950s and ’60s.

‘Anything you’re big enough to do’

In 2000-2001, members of the International Longshoremen’s Association on the docks of Charleston, S.C., waged an effective struggle against union busting. The state government, in the name of upholding the “right to work,” tried for two years to frame up five union members on felony charges stemming from a police assault on a peaceful union picket. By organizing working-class solidarity throughout the region and nationally, this attack was defeated.

In Teamster Power, the second of four volumes on the Teamster battles of the 1930s and ’40s, Farrell Dobbs describes the advice he gave as the central organizer of an 11-state organizing drive of over-the-road truckers in the Midwest.

“When a local leader asked if the union could do one or another thing,” Dobbs said, “my opening reply was usually: ‘You can do anything you’re big enough to do.’ … This helped to instill in the workers a reflex tendency to think always in terms of using their class power.”
Related articles:
Sugar workers press fight on several fronts
American Crystal maintains lockout of 1,300
12-hour shifts underground ‘not safe,’ say Arizona miners
Deal lets bosses off hook in 2007 Utah mine deaths
On the Picket Line
Atlanta rally protests state law attacking freedom of speech
Journey to picket lines of locked-out sugar workers  
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