Indiana Smites Unions

Yesterday, with Gov. Mitch Daniels’ signature, Indiana became the 23d state, and the very first (other than Indiana itself during a brief period ending in 1965) in the industrial northeast and midwest, to enact “right-to-work” legislation–or as folk in the labor movement call it, a “right to work for less” law.

Politically, it could reflect a shift of conservative and Republican anti-labor strategy from a focus on reducing the strength of public-sector unions (rationalized by alleged budget savings to be achieved by reducing wages and benefits for public employees) to a broader and more open attack on organizing and collective bargaining rights.

As Abby Rapoport explains at The American Prospect, Indiana’s action is significant historically because it represents the use of right-to-work laws to dismantle, not prevent, unions:

“Right-to-work laws weaken labor for sure,” says [labor historian Jefferson] Cowie. “But they were passed in states where labor was already weak.” States throughout the South and West soon passed such legislation, and used the laws to prevent unions from gaining a foothold or gaining significant power. The laws never actually dismantled a strong union presence, but instead kept unions out for fear they would upset racial and class structures.

While conservatives will cheer Indiana’s action, you can expect the most common reaction on the Right to stray from the traditional line that other states should emulate it. Despite the renewed popularity of states’ rights rhetoric, anti-labor ideologues have recently begun demanding a national “right-to-work” law, as was reflected when Rick Santorum got beaten up by his rivals in a SC candidates’ debate for having voted against such a measure.

“States’ rights,” of course, is not the only conservative principle anti-labor zealots are willing to sacrifice in the pursuit of greater workplace power for “job-creators;” the very essence of right-to-work laws, federal or state, is to outlaw freedom of contract, since employers and unions are prohibited from signing agreements that require payment of dues in exchange for legally required collective bargaining representation.

Most supporters of “right-to-work” laws don’t even both to get into their pros and cons, just taking it for granted that unions are a bad thing and that workers struggling under their yoke would give anything to regain the right to flex their muscles in individual negotiations with their employers (joke!).

But as someone who grew up in the right-to-work Deep South, I can assure Indianans that from a psychological point of view they are about to enter a brave new world where an ever-neurotic desire to keep corporations happy always seems to trump any consideration of fair play or workers’ rights. Welcome to the Old South, Hoosiers! Misery loves company.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.