Warren introduces repeal of federal OK of RTW laws
Missouri workers protest Right to Work | Darron Cummings/AP

WASHINGTON—As the Democratic-run U.S. House plans to vote on the Protect The Right To Organize (Pro) Act, the most-comprehensive pro-worker labor law reform in decades, Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., split out a key anti-worker provision and introduced her own legislation to deal with it: Repeal of federal approval of states’ infamous so-called “right to work” laws.

The one-page Nationwide Right To Unionize Act, which Warren and Rep. Brad Sherman, D-Calif., unveiled at the end of January, would accomplish a long-held labor goal: Repeal of section 14(B) of the 1947 GOP-passed Taft-Hartley Act.

That one section legalized RTW laws nationwide, state by state. Labor lobbied hard against it – and the rest of Taft-Hartley – but the GOP-run 80 th Congress passed it over Democratic President Harry S Truman’s veto.

Warren has  16 Senate cosponsors, all Democrats. Three – Warren and Sens. Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota – seek the party’s presidential nomination. Others include Sherrod Brown (Ohio), Jeff Merkley (Oregon) and Tina Smith (Minnesota).

The RTW repeal is not part of the Pro Act, a member of the AFL-CIO’s legislative team said. The Pro Act is scheduled for a House floor vote on Feb. 6. The last time organized labor tried outright repeal of section 14(B) alone, a business-backed Senate filibuster shot it down.

“I support workers all the way as they join together and fight for their future,” Warren said. RTW repeal, she added, “would protect workers across the country and ban states from imposing restrictions that drive down wages by preventing workers from unionizing.”

“So-called ‘right-to-work’ laws are designed to make it difficult to organize a union,” Sherman’s statement added. “This impacts not only workers who want a union — but general wage levels throughout the state.

“In an ill-conceived effort to attract business, one state after another has adopted these anti-union laws in a race to the bottom. That is why I’ve introduced the National Right to Unionize Act in every session of Congress since 2008. And, it is why Warren’s years of effort to pass this legislation are so important.”

Arkansas adopted the first so-called “right to work” law in 1944, three years before the GOP-run Congress legalized such statutes state by state nationwide. The supposed reason was to protect workers’ freedom not to join unions. The real reason was racist: To prevent Southern white and African-American workers from uniting together against corporate control.

Since then, RTW spread to at least 26 states, most but not all in the South, the Great Plains and other GOP-dominated areas. Several of them, notably Wisconsin and Michigan, enacted RTW over strong union opposition after 2010 off-year GOP election sweeps.

And RTW backers now openly say they want to use it to cut off money for unions to use to organize and to oppose the corporate agenda – by allowing workers, private or public, to be “free riders” who can use union services and protections without paying one red cent for them.

The right also achieved a significant RTW victory with the U.S. Supreme Court’s Janus decision, potentially making every state and local government worker nationwide a “free rider.”

But when right-wing state legislators and a GOP governor who ran on a RTW platform tried to push the law through in Missouri, a citizens’ campaign, led by unions, but with civic and community allies, led voters to clobber RTW by a 2-to-1 ratio. And RTW repeal so energized Show Me State workers that union density jumped from 9.7% in 2018 to 11.4% in 2019.

Besides depriving unions of money, RTW laws also deprive workers of wages, the Economic Policy Institute reports, in endorsing Warren’s bill.

“So-called right-to-work laws lower workers’ wages – which is no surprise, given that unions raise wages and the intended effect of right-to-work laws is to hamstring unions,” said EPI Policy Director Heidi Shierholz.

EPI’s studies show workers in “right-to-work” states have average wages 3.1% below those of comparable workers elsewhere. That difference costs workers millions of dollars a year, Shierholz adds.

“Working people are now losing around $200 billion per year as a result of the erosion of union coverage in recent decades. Banning right-to-work is a crucial step in halting and reversing those trends and creating an economy that works for all, not just for the people who already have the most.”

Besides Sherman, the RTW repeal has 27 cosponsors so far in the Democratic-run U.S. House. They include Progressive Caucus co-chair Pramila Jayapal of Washington, Linda Sanchez of California, a former Teamsters counsel, Dan Kildee of Flint, Mich., Marcy Kaptur of Ohio, Stephen Lynch – another unionist – of Massachusetts, Ilhan Omar of the Twin Cities, Jan Schakowsky of Chicago, Pete Visclosky of Gary, Ind., and Gwen Moore of Milwaukee.


Mark Gruenberg
Mark Gruenberg

Award-winning journalist Mark Gruenberg is head of the Washington, D.C., bureau of People's World. He is also the editor of the union news service Press Associates Inc. (PAI). Known for his reporting skills, sharp wit, and voluminous knowledge of history, Mark is a compassionate interviewer but tough when going after big corporations and their billionaire owners.