Over the years, the labor movement challenged private power and its abuses, made capitalism more equitable, extended democracy to the workplace, reminded employers that workers were more than impersonal costs of production and proved critical in the creation of the middle class. It also was labor, along with other progressive voices, that reminded us that the government that governs least is not necessarily the best. A weak government simply left the economic arena in the hands of private power, which history has demonstrated also could be as arbitrary and capricious as any unrestrained government.
The spectrum of ideological resistance to organized labor in the past — and indeed with its current renaissance — included the idea that workers, as individuals, should be free to enter the marketplace to negotiate and contract the conditions of their employment. That idea was the essence of individual freedom as applied to the economic realm.
Workers never lacked reminders of the orthodoxy that pointed to an economic order governed by self-regulating, self-adjusting, infallible, “natural” economic laws. Public bodies and the press communicated the idea that the collective efforts by workers and government intervention in the economic sphere violated the natural order of things and such “artificial” interference could only be detrimental to economic prosperity and the well-being of all.
Workers were informed that they were architects of their lives; success or failure and their place on the economic pyramid were always individual in origin. Such views are readily challenged when workers are caught in economic gyrations beyond their control. While free will and personal responsibility cannot be dismissed as explanations for one’s economic circumstances, in their exaggerated form they serve to exempt the systemic sources of life circumstances. Even the state, which in a legal sense is a sovereign body with control over its affairs, is required to recognize that decisions that affect its fate and its citizens often are beyond its control, particularly as the dynamics of national and international markets penetrate state boundaries.
Labor’s struggles against “right-to-work” legislation in Maine reaches back to 1948, when voters defeated two anti-union measures in a referendum vote by margins of 2 to 1. Contentious right-to-work measures have been proposed with monotonous regularity and were extended to embrace public employees. (In 2003, during the Baldacci administration, advocates of unionism for state employees secured “fair share” contributions from all new hires. Two years later, a new contract required all state employees to join the union or pay dues.)
A renaissance of the movement occurred in 2010, with the blessings of Gov. Paul LePage. A right-to-work measure failed in 2011, with measures failing again in 2012, 2013 and 2014. In 2015, four right-to-work measures fell short of victory. Five right-to-work bills are working their way through the Legislature.
Critics of “compulsory unionism” ask, “Who should decide which individual should join any organization? It is our individual and God-given freedom to choose for ourselves.” This argument has a universal ring of truth. Individual choice, as generally viewed, is the essence of freedom. This brand of right-to-work advocate also will assert that he or she is not opposed to labor unions but only “compulsory” union membership — a seemingly perfect marriage of individual freedom and collective action. For unions, however, this translates into acceptance of unions — as long as they are powerless paper tigers.
The right-to-work movement appears inextricably linked to calls for a “favorable business climate” and business “flexibility,” phrases that imply little or no union restraint on management decisions in the global marketplace.
Apprehension abounds in labor circles that calls for right-to-work legislation continues to be used to disguise the efforts of labor’s ideological opponents to strike another blow to the collective power of workers and simultaneously weaken the Democratic Party, which historically has been closely linked with organized labor.
For advocates of the labor movement, only the collective mind, muscle and voice of workers can protect and enhance their interests because isolated individuals are powerless to realize systemic and policy changes that affect their lives.
Along with challenges at the state level, union workers face a president and a vice-president who favor right-to-work legislation along with a new emphasis on the miracle of the “free market” and economic nationalism. It appears that the collective rights of workers do not fit neatly in or form part of this paradigm.
Charles Scontras is a historian and research associate at the Bureau of Labor Education at the University of Maine in Orono. He lives in Cape Elizabeth.