Commentary: What workers can celebrate and keep an eye on

On Labor Day, celebrate recent wins for unions and workers, but be wary of ‘right to work’ efforts.

By Jeff Johnson

For The Herald

My sisters and I grew up during the 1950s and 1960s in a single-parent household on Long Island, New York. Mom was a state employee, and her wages and benefits — and the prosperity of our family — rose thanks to union-negotiated contracts.

Braces, eyeglasses, asthma medication, vacations and a modest house were all provided to my family because workers like my mother had the freedom to negotiate a fair return on the value of their labor.

My children have also grown up in a union family here in Washington state. They know their rights at the workplace, they’ve walked picket lines, and they understand that most of their generation has a raw deal. They joined the labor market in an age of obscene income inequality. The general expectation is that my kids’ generation will be the first to have a lower standard of living than their parents.

My children understand the role unions have played in building the middle class, but too many young people don’t. They are unaware of the concerted attack on unions by those who promote so-called “right to work” laws.

The term “right to work” has its origins in the Jim Crow era and was a policy devised by white supremacists to keep the races from mingling and to keep black people from moving up the economic ladder. The term itself is the perfect ruse because it does not confer any rights at all. We all have a constitutional and human right to work, and the freedom to choose whether we want to be union members.

This ploy allows workers to gain the benefits of being represented by unions but have the “right” not to pay for that representation. Its proponents are betting that workers squeezed in this economy won’t pay, and that unions will wither and die as a result.

The goal is straightforward. Weaken the voice of unions at the negotiating table and you lower wages and benefit costs, or at least keep them in check. Weaken the voice of unions in the political sphere and you undercut the push for higher minimum and prevailing wages, paid sick leave, Medicare-for-All universal health care, fair tax reform and creating a just transition away from a fossil-fuel economy toward a clean, alternative energy economy.

The latter may come as a surprise until we connect the dots. The Koch Brothers and other billionaire families that derive much of their wealth from fossil fuels are also the ones funding the right-to-work movement across the country. The Freedom Foundation is one of the many organizations that has taken up this cause.

What I find most encouraging this Labor Day is that millennials with support across generations and progressive organizations are raising their voices to call for an end to inequality. They are making the connections between the Fight for $15, Black Lives Matter and climate-justice movements. They recognize that our current economy is unfair and unjust.

What I also find encouraging is that the voters of red-state Missouri overwhelmingly defeated a right-to-work proposal in August. Hundreds of thousands of non-union workers voted against it because they recognized that without strong union contracts wages, benefits and social services would decline for everyone.

So in spite of the recent Supreme Court decision in Janus vs. AFSCME, unions and the labor movement are healthy, growing and working with community partners to strengthen our economy. Unions, community, faith-based organizations, LGBTQ groups, communities of color, youth, seniors, environmental organizations and immigrants are working together to create a fair and just transition away from inequality and fossil fuels toward a healthy economy and environment.

Happy Labor Day to all and thank you for the work you do.

Jeff Johnson is the out-going president of the Washington State Labor Council, AFL-CIO. He lives in Olympia.

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