Corporate-backed “right-to-work” laws, such as the measure just passed in Wisconsin with the strong support of Republican presidential prospect Gov. Scott Walker, are a prime example of a double standard in modern American society, where the rules for workers would never be applied to corporations.
Right-to-work advocates (who usually aren’t workers at all, but instead are conservative politicians and corporate executives) are using the pretext of personal freedom to effectively disempower unions. Under the measures they propose, individual workers in unionized shops must be allowed to opt out of paying fees to unions despite enjoying the benefits gained through collective bargaining. As such, workers are more likely to opt out of unions to save a few bucks, and therefore unions eventually lose numbers, money, and bargaining power.
The insidious goal here is thinly veiled: right-to-work laws aren’t about workers’ rights at all but are a pernicious union-crushing strategy.
The disingenuous use of “personal freedom” as a justification for right-to-work laws becomes apparent if we consider applying that underlying concept—personal freedom—beyond the workplace to the corporate realm itself. If GOP lawmakers and their Wall Street backers think individual liberty requires giving workers the right to invalidate the democratic vote of their co-workers, the same principle could easily be applied to give corporate shareholders the right to trump the vote of corporate boards.
Corporate shareholders, like employees in a unionized workplace, are bound by decisions made by others, and it’s puzzling that GOP lawmakers don’t see this as an egregious affront to “personal freedom.” Consider, for example, how corporate boards, not shareholders, decide what to do with a company’s profits. Under the principle of personal freedom that GOP lawmakers consider so important, shouldn’t shareholders be allowed to decide for themselves how to spend their share of profits? Never mind right-to-work—let’s talk about right-to-profits.
Currently, elected corporate boards of profitable companies will sometimes vote to pay dividends to shareholders, but sometimes instead, profits will be reinvested, used to build a cash reserve, or used to pay huge bonuses to corporate executives. But using the logic of right-to-work, shouldn’t individual shareholders, as owners of the business, have the freedom to decide for themselves?
Corporate defenders will insist that shareholders delegated the right to decide where profits go by electing, via majority vote, a board of directors to handle that task, but the same can be said for workers who democratically vote to unionize a shop. They’ll also argue that shareholders displeased with corporate board decisions are free to sell their shares and invest elsewhere, but employees unhappy with unionization votes in the workplace are also free to go elsewhere. What we discover is that the rules of labor simply don’t apply to capital.
This double standard illustrates what everyone knows: corporations have no real interest in personal freedom of real humans, but instead are sharply focused on neutralizing the power of workers, particularly that of unions, to maximize profit. This is the same reason why so-called “free trade” pacts routinely allow corporations to operate internationally without restraint, but never give labor the same benefit. It’s the old double standard.
Despite occasional lip service to the contrary, labor is not a partner of corporate interests. On the contrary, workers are consistently seen by the corporate sector as a necessary evil—a business expense. If Gov. Walker and his cohorts wish to put corporate interests over the interests of real working people, that is their prerogative, but they should at least be honest about it.