Labor Day brings to mind images of cookouts and enjoying that last bit of summer with family and friends. Let’s not forget, however, that this holiday is meant to celebrate workers.
Organized labor is responsible for much that we take for granted today. Social Security, workplace safety standards, the minimum wage and child labor laws — imagine where we would be without these. And imagine how we could have these without the efforts of workers and their labor unions.
Despite these achievements, the right to collective bargaining is under continued attack in the Maine Legislature and elsewhere. I expect that the assaults are not over, given the continued push for the misleadingly named “right-to-work” measures by their proponents.
We should call these destructive measures what they really are: “right-to-work-for-less” laws. They push down wages, erode benefits and make our workplaces less safe. It’s all about a race to the bottom.
The average worker in states with right-to-work-for-less laws makes $1,540 a year less than workers in other states, according to the Economic Policy Institute. In these states, 26.7 percent of jobs are in low-wage occupations, compared with 19.5 percent of jobs in other states.
Workers in these states are less likely to have job-based health insurance, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation. For example, only 50.7 percent of employers in these states offer coverage to their employees, compared to 55.2 percent in other states. The difference is even more dramatic when it comes to small employers with fewer than 50 workers: 34.4 percent versus 41.7 percent.
Even more frightening is the fact that the workplace death rate is 36 percent higher in states with these laws, according to Bureau of Labor Statistics data.
The claim of proponents of right-to-work-for-less laws that union membership is mandatory at companies where unions are present is completely false. As the National Labor Relations Act of 1935 makes clear, employees may refrain from joining or participating in the activities of organizations for the purposes of representation and collective bargaining. Forced union membership is not allowed. Federal law makes this clear.
Nonunion workers also benefit from collective bargaining agreements and should pitch in for the costs of getting those contracts in place. But “right-to-work” laws undermine collective bargaining by encouraging workers to reap the benefits of a contract without contributing their fair share of the costs.
The current system we have is fair and has worked for the past 80 years. In order to establish union representation, workers must hold a vote on whether to grant unions this allowance. A simple majority vote, either for or against, determines whether a union will represent a particular group of employees.
The politics of right-to-work are specifically focused on the elimination of unions. Instead of trusting workers to vote for what they want and allowing a fair election process, supporters of right-to-work laws seek to afford those opposed to unions a way around the fair voting process.
The process for deciding whether to be represented by a union is not unlike the way we choose our elected officials. After each election cycle, those who voted for losing candidates are not represented by candidates of their choice. Gov. Paul LePage may have won 38 percent of the vote, for example but his is the chief executive of our entire great state.
State lawmakers have successfully turned back these harmful “right-to-work” proposals, even when the Legislature was controlled by Republicans.
Maine citizens deserve better representation on the issues they care about. When partisan politics are left at the door, Maine can move forward.
Maine citizens want their government to work on their behalf. Let’s stop pushing this anti-worker agenda and recognize the central role that our workforce plays in our prosperity.
Rep. Joshua Plante, D-Berwick, is serving his first term in the Maine Legislature. He serves on the Legislature’s Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee.