‘Right to Work’ reform — on tap?

Sam Waltz, Founding Publisher
Sam Waltz, Founding Publisher

By Sam Waltz
Founding Publisher

Right-to-Work (RTW) is a much more complex issue than it seems, and it’s a complex one for me personally.

After a lot of thought given to it, as it comes back to the front burner in Delaware, I find myself wondering if it isn’t time for our party leaders to find room for some compromises and allow in RTW.

I grew up in a union family. My mother and my first wife were teachers and active members of NEA-affiliated labor unions. My father, a farmer and a Democrat-precinct committeeman, likely was even more active on the issue, a member for some years of something called the National Farmers Union (Google it), a radical collectivist group of ag commodity producers.

I was a VP of the Campus Democrats at Illinois in the 1960s, and I remain a Democrat. In the last election, I voted for 12 Ds, 4Rs and a third-party candidate. Even today, I’ve worked closely with many unions, and, as a business guy, I’m regarded as “a friend of labor” by my friends in organized labor, something of which I’m proud, very proud.

Having said that, a sobering moment for me on the RTW issue here in Delaware came some years back when I covered an illegal strike of a public-employee union against the state hospital.

Most unionized workers walked off the job, leaving management and a handful of non-union employees to care for patients, who were among the state’s most vulnerable.

However, because such public employee strikes were illegal, one union worker followed his conscience and stayed behind to tend to the state’s patients. As I did my research on that, I found that the union enjoyed a “closed shop” contract, that people working in his job must be a member of the union to hold that job.

While that strike was underway for a few days, he was threatened with being expelled from the union because he obeyed Delaware law (and disobeyed his union) and crossed the picket line.

I don’t know, or remember, whatever happened in that case, but, if the union had acted to expel him from membership, his state employment would have been jeopardized and in all likelihood the State would have been forced to fire an otherwise fine employee for the sin of obeying State law.

I believe in the role for unions in society, and I’m firmly convinced that particularly in the building trades the apprenticeship programs produce a high-quality worker for business. And in many other areas, unions help bring an order to the labor marketplace.

That the First State has seemed solidly blue for two decades — at least until the election in 2014 of Republican State Treasurer Ken Simpler – has destined Delaware to remain securely a pro-union state, despite the declining market share of organized labor in Delaware as elsewhere.

Elimination of prevailing wage laws in setting prices for public sector work and creation of RTW have been two of the frontal assaults the Delaware GOP has been making on Delaware’s union stronghold. Neither has gotten much traction yet.

Senate Bill 54, Sen. Greg Lavelle’s effort to bring RTW “freedom of choice” to the workforce, delinking a requirement of union membership from many collective bargaining agreements, finally got a hearing in Dover at the end of April, but it’s going nowhere this year. Given that the 148th General Assembly is not even half finished with its 2015-16 workload, certainly ample time remains, even though the political will may be sparse.

Across a continuum that might encourage or discourage unions at the end points, America remains somewhat in the middle. Unions are allowed, even easy to form, and they’re well protected under law, as they should be.

But in a free society, no one is guaranteed a market share, an income. Just ask McDonald’s, once the 500-pound gorilla of the fast food industry but today fighting to keep share. Or ask the auto companies that have gone out of business.

America is a market-based economy, with virtually open and free communication. Companies, organizations, yes, even unions, are compelled — and, by all rights, should feel compelled – to make their case in a marketing-and business-development sense for every dollar of market share, for every member, for every vote.

Without Right-to-Work, 51 percent of a workforce can dictate to the other 49 percent by organizing and building a closed-shop contract, creating a private-sector tax on the income of those people, and that is just plain wrong.

I believe unions have a strong case to make for the value they add, and they can do that, and they should do that. But they should enjoy no special protections for market share that others don’t enjoy. ♦

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