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October 18, 2019
"Open Shop"
Posted On: Aug 30, 2011


Wisconsin workers haven’t faced a possibility of “right-to-work (for less)” legislation in many years.  This legislative session, unions may face a serious threat to pass this into law.  It is therefore important to understand the negative consequences of such laws for Wisconsin’s working families.

Right-to-work laws are deceptively named.  They do not guarantee a single job, nor do they guarantee one’s right to work.  These laws prohibit employers and unions from negotiating union security provisions in a collective bargaining agreement.

This is known as an “open shop,” and its goal is to weaken and eventually eliminate unions.  It does this by forcing unions to represent employees even though they decide not to pay dues for representation.  As union finances dwindle, employers become emboldened to violate contracts.  Unions find it financially more difficult to defend members against contract violations, unfair disciplines, and improper layoffs, and to negotiate fair agreements.

These laws are not fair to due-paying members.  They are akin to allowing citizens in civil society to collect government benefits while skipping out on their taxes used to pay for these services.

These laws erode the middle class.  Workers in open shop states make $5,538 per year less than workers in states where union security is permitted.  Right-to-work states spend $2,671 less per pupil on elementary and secondary education.  Overall, union members earn 28% more ($198 per week) than non-union workers.  Seventy-eight percent of private sector union workers have access to health insurance versus 51% for non-union.  Seventy-seven percent of private sector union workers have a guaranteed defined benefit pension plan, whereas the number for non-union workers is 20%.

It should not be surprising to discover that workers in right-to-work states have a lower quality of life in the form of higher poverty, lower wages, less access to health care and poorer education for children (US Department of Labor and the US Census Bureau).

Historian Philip Taft traced the beginnings of the “open shop” movement to the late 1890s and early 1900s.  Then, as now, employers understood the value of misleading the public about the real impact of their policies.  Organizations like the National Association of Manufacturers led the formation of these anti-worker laws, titled them citizens organizations and erroneously said their goals were to extend freedoms to workers.  In the early 1920s, manufacturers developed the “American Plan.”  This widespread open shop campaign helped cause a drop in union membership from 2.4 million to 1.4 million from 1920 to 1923.

After New Deal legislation in the 1930s boosted union memberships, the open shoppers regained momentum after World War II, resulting in the passage of the 1947 Taft-Hartley Act, which permitted states to ban union security clauses.

A front group known as the National Right-to-Work Committee was born in the 1950s and has descended upon state after state seeking to pass such laws.  It is important that working people fight this effort to weaken their unions by taking away their union security provisions negotiated into their contracts.

Reprinted with permission from the Wisconsin Labor History Society.

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