This Labor Day, Support Workers

Labor Day was first recognized as a federal holiday under President Grover Cleveland in 1894. While the roots of the holiday can be traced back to specific events and struggles of the era, the holiday quickly came to symbolize the struggles and achievements of America’s workers. At the time, labor unions banded private individuals together to negotiate with managers and company owners for safer working conditions, better pay and better hours. In 1900, the average workday was about 10 hours long and could reach as long as 18 hours each day. Such was often coupled with low pay and dangerous working conditions. Today, labor unions are fighting in court to preserve their authority to compel public employees to pay unions for political causes they disagree with.

This monumental shift in mission should encourage all Americans to pause this Labor Day and think about what it really means to support employees in the twenty-first century. As in years past, supporting workers should mean maximizing their economic potential. In our modern age, economic potential is best realized by maximizing the choices available to workers. Perhaps that means joining and participating in a labor union, or perhaps that means foregoing the representation of a labor union and negotiating independently. Since the best option might vary from state to state, industry to industry, or person to person, the real question becomes simply, who is the best person to make these kinds of decisions, the union or the individual themselves?

So, in the true spirit of Labor Day and supporting the American worker, there are at least two primary reforms that states can embrace to maximize the potential of every employee by allowing them to make choices for themselves about what is best for them and their future.

The broadest reform that states can adopt to maximize the choices of America’s workers is adopting a Right-to-Work law. Right-to-Work laws simply ensure that a worker cannot be fired for their decision to refrain from joining a union. Contrary to some claims made by entrenched interests, Right-to-Work laws do not outlaw unions or union membership. To date, more than half of the states have recognized the fundamental right of workers everywhere to decide for themselves whether or not to join a union without that choice jeopardizing their employment. While this is encouraging there is plenty more work to be done, West Virginia became the twenty-sixth Right-to-Work state just this year. There are still 24 states that do not protect the choices of their workers in this way.

Even in Right-to-Work states, public employee unions have been able to protect their ability to force all public employees to accept their negotiated terms. Because states operate under monopoly bargaining laws, public employees are unable to negotiate the terms of their own contracts themselves. Instead, the labor union bargains collectively on their behalf, whether they would like it to or not. Conversely, public employees may choose not to join their public employee union but that does not allow them to negotiate on their own. In Right-to-Work states, non-members of unions do not have to pay membership dues or collective bargaining fees, but must still accept the terms agreed upon in collective bargaining negotiations by a union to which they do not belong. The unions meanwhile are put in a situation where they must represent non-members who do not pay for representation. In non-Right-to-Work states, public employees who decline union membership must not only accept the terms of collective bargaining, but must also pay for the union to negotiate these (often very polarized political) agreements.

Embracing a culture of choice turns out to be the remarkably simple answer to these issues. Worker’s Choice is a policy in which public employees are guaranteed the right to decide who negotiates their contract, the union or themselves. By adopting this type of reform, states can free public employees from being forced to accept terms that are collectively bargained for by the union and allow them to negotiate independently. Similarly, passing a Worker’s Choice law would free public employee unions from being obligated to represent non-members (and/or non-fee payers) in collective bargaining negotiations.

Although these are just two examples of needed labor reforms, they share a common commitment to the freedom of choice for workers. The best way to honor America’s workers this Labor Day is to trust them. Trust them with the ability to make the choices that they conclude will be best. Rather than reflexively supporting people or institutions that claim to honor the struggles and achievements of workers, Labor Day should be about supporting the workers themselves and in today’s context that means supporting their right to make their own choices.