WASHINGTON—Will Democratic gains in the November elections lead to the repeal of so-called “right to work” laws banning the union shop?
Six states, all in the Midwest and Appalachia, have enacted such laws since 2012, prohibiting contracts in which all workers have to pay dues or fees to the unions that are legally required to represent them. Those laws were a dramatic blow to the labor movement, as they came in its historical strongholds in industry and mining. But Missouri voters repealed its 2017 “right to work” law in a referendum last August. Union supporters hope to repeat that success in other states—and at least try to nationally.
In Michigan, Democratic governor-elect Gretchen Whitmer has said she would work to repeal the state’s 2013 law prohibiting the union shop, and the state AFL-CIO declares repealing “laws that take away our right to join together and negotiate a fair return on our work” a top priority.
Republicans still control the state legislature, the Senate by 22-16 and the House by 58-52. But Democrats gained five seats in each chamber—and that means “we may be able to find a majority,” says state AFL-CIO spokesperson Ryan Sebolt. Given the state’s long labor history, he adds, “there are Republicans who vote with us frequently. Those folks do exist.”
Winning a majority to repeal the law would require a switch of four votes in the House and three in the Senate, where lieutenant-governor-elect Garlin Gilchrist II would cast a tie-breaking vote. Last June, when the legislature repealed the state’s prevailing-wage law for public construction projects, seven Republican House members and four senators joined the Democrats in voting no.
In Wisconsin, where union-busting poster boy Gov. Scott Walker was defeated for a third term, state AFL-CIO President Stephanie Bloomingdale says repeal of the state’s 2015 union-shop ban is a “top priority.” “Voters clearly told politicians this past election that it’s time to stand up and support working people on the issues we care about: good wages, safe workplaces and the full freedom to collectively bargain,” she said in a statement to LaborPress.
Voters clearly told politicians this past election that it’s time to stand up and support working people on the issues we care about: good wages, safe workplaces and the full freedom to collectively bargain. — AFL-CIO President Stephanie Bloomingdale
The legislative numbers in Madison are more daunting than those in Lansing, however. Republicans gained one seat in the state Senate to increase their margin to 19-14. They retained a 63-36 majority in the Assembly after losing one seat, and Speaker Robin Vos is a Walker acolyte who cited the union-shop ban as one of the top achievements of his career when he announced for re-election.
Nevada is also a possibility: With Steve Sisolak elected governor, it’s now the only one of the 27 “right to work” states where Democrats control the governorship and both houses of the state legislature. It’s “a unique opportunity,” UCommBlog columnist Brian Young wrote three days after the election, “because many of the state’s elected officials owe their wins to the powerful Culinary Workers Union.” The only state whose legislature has repealed such a law, he noted, was New Hampshire, in 1949.
The Culinary Union, UNITE HERE Local 226, says its 2018 campaign effort was “a field program unmatched by any other in the country,” with members speaking to about 80,000 voters in person; sending 1,750,000 pieces of mail to its members and the general public; and making more than 40,000 personal calls to voters, in English, Spanish, Tagalog, Amharic, and Chinese. “The Culinary Union usually leads in health-care, immigration, workers’ rights, and economic justice policies at the legislature,” it said in a statement.
However, Local 226 is not ready to go public with its priorities for the next legislative session, a spokesperson told LaborPress.
A union-shop ban has been introduced in Ohio, but is unlikely to go anywhere, although the state House held hearings on it Nov. 13. Republican governor-elect Mike DeWine said during the campaign that it wasn’t a priority for him and he’d veto it if it passed.
Ohio Republicans have been reluctant to push the issue, although four states that border it—Indiana, Michigan, Kentucky, and West Virginia—have enacted such laws since 2012. In 2011, after Senate Bill 5 severely limited collective bargaining by government employees, a union-backed ballot initiative to repeal it won more than 60% of the vote.
Nationally, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Rep. Mark Pocan (D-Wisc.) plan to reintroduce the Workplace Democracy Act, which would repeal Section 14(b) of the Taft-Hartley Act of 1947—the federal law that authorizes states to prohibit the union shop. Repeal would not prevent states from enacting such laws, a Pocan spokesperson explains, but it would give unions clear grounds to get them overturned in the courts, as federal law supersedes state law.
The last time there was a serious attempt at repealing Section 14(b) came in 1965-66, when the House passed it, but a Senate filibuster blocked it. But when the Workplace Democracy Act was introduced last year, it attracted only 16 cosponsors in the Senate and 60 in the House, all Democrats.
Its House prospects will be better come January: Rep. Bobby Scott (D-Va.) will become chair of the Committee on Education and the Workforce, replacing Rep. Virginia Foxx (R-N.C.), who called the Supreme Court’s Janus decision “a victory for the American workforce.” Scott and Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) are sponsoring the Workers Freedom to Negotiate Act, which would amend Section 14(b) to state that contracts requiring that all employees in a bargaining unit pay fees for the cost of bargaining and representation “shall be valid and enforceable notwithstanding any State or Territorial law.” Introduced last year, it got 33 cosponsors in the Senate and 78 in the House, also all Democrats.
Rep. Pocan, his spokesperson said, “looks forward to working with House and Senate committees, as well as our brothers and sisters in labor, to advance legislation like this, even if Republicans in the Senate are staunchly opposed to this kind of pro-worker agenda.”
American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten, speaking to LaborPress after the election, cited the Workplace Democracy Act as a likely one-house bill. On the other hand, she said, House Democrats passing “what we stand for” measures would show voters what they would do if they had more power.
The House passing one of these bills would obviously be symbolic, UCommBlog’s Young wrote, but “by voting to repeal a state’s ability to pass these laws, Democrats would be signaling to union members that they will fight to create an economy and a playing field that works for working men and women.”