Florida Governor Rick Scott, and the state’s economic development arm, Enterprise Florida, recently teamed up to promote Florida’s business climate to Kentucky businesses. In a radio ad, they asked Kentuckians if they were tired of unions and high taxes, and touted Florida as a place that has neither “as a right-to-work state, with no income tax.” While Scott and his corporate functionaries tout these as state assets, they are actually liabilities for the majority of Floridians.
Starting with the so-called “right-to-work” law: It is a less than transparent, but highly effective, vehicle for weakening the ability of workers to organize, collectively bargain, and negotiate with their employers over work conditions. It prohibits mandatory union membership and the collection of union dues from workers represented by a union that collectively bargains on their behalf and is responsible for the wages, fringe benefits, and working conditions enjoyed by all employees. Under this law, workers are able to enjoy the benefits derived from a union workplace without joining the union and paying union dues.
To appreciate the implications of such a law, consider an equivalent type of organization — the homeowners association. The right-to-work law would be equivalent to allowing residents who move into a neighborhood the freedom to opt out of paying annual homeowner association fees. While all residents would benefit from the amenities and community upkeep that enhances their property values, they would be free to choose not to pay the annual levy. This would obviously undermine the viability of neighborhood associations and their ability to finance the costs of maintaining common community space.
And please don’t be confused by the manipulative name of the law or the rhetoric. It is a piece of anti-worker legislation couched in an Orwellian double-speak misnomer. It is not a “right-to-a-job” law, it is not a “right-to-a-living wage” law, and it is not a “right-to-be-treated-with-dignity-at-the-workplace” law. The supporters of the “right-to-work” law would oppose every one of those pieces of legislation because they would interfere with the right of employers to fire you, pay you a minimum wage, and treat you any way they desire. The right-to-work law is championed, largely by corporate interests, for the very simple reason that it makes unionization of workers much more difficult. This is confirmed by the lower rates of unionization in right-to-work states and, accordingly, the lower wages and poorer working conditions for all workers.
While right-to-work laws may be attractive to businesses looking to pay low wages and avoid negotiating with workers over the conditions of their employment, the law does not translate into a better quality of life for the state’s residents. A recent study by Politico, ranking the states on quality of life measures associated with education, crime, employment, and income, found that the bottom five states all had “right-to-work” laws, while four of the top five had no such law.
Attracting non- or anti-union businesses that pay low wages also imposes an additional cost on a state’s taxpayers. To take the most widely reported example, the stridently anti-union employer Walmart pays wages that are so low, fulltime workers must rely on government assistance to make ends meet. It’s estimated that Walmart’s low-wage workers cost U.S. taxpayers an estimated $6.2 billion in public assistance including food stamps, Medicaid, and subsidized housing. In Florida, the total cost of assisting Walmart’s workers was $429 million. The total budgetary cost for all low-wage work in Florida was more than $1 billion. In essence, Florida taxpayers are subsidizing the low wage compensation and, in turn, the high profits of many corporations.
In spite of “right-to-work” laws, workers have struggled to organize workplaces and, consequently, employers have resorted to other strategies. The class war is fought on many fronts. There was a time when employers would simply hire company goons to rough up workers who were trying to organize a union. Today, there’s a more sophisticated method, involving the use of law firms specializing in tactics and strategies to assist employers in the effort to keep the workplace union-free. This evolution in tactics has been nicely described as “from brass-knuckles to briefcases,” but the intent is the same — to prevent workers from establishing an organization to represent their interests. The most notorious national union-avoidance law firm is Jackson Lewis (with offices in four Florida cities, including Jacksonville, and 49 additional locations nationwide) who describes its service not as union-busting, but “preventive labor relations.” It offers regular workshops for managers and owners intent on keeping the workplace union-free.
Anti-union corporations, like Walmart and Target, engage in a less than subtle indoctrination of newly hired workers during orientation sessions, on the evils of organized labor. If employees are involved in union discussions, they’re often harassed and terminated.
In the building and construction sector, a key source of employment in the state of Florida, an organization claiming to represent the industry (though a recent study indicates their membership amounts to only 1 percent of U.S. construction businesses), the Associated Builders & Contractors (ABC), was formed for and continues to be dedicated to the defeat of any union organization within their work force. They have consistently lobbied against any legislation that would enhance the ability of workers to organize and collectively bargain with employers in the building and construction industry, and beyond.
It’s hard to understand the unrelenting hostility to organized labor. It apparently isn’t enough that the percent of workers in a union has fallen to its lowest level in 97 years at 11 percent; it’s not enough that income inequality has swelled to record levels; it’s not enough that the concentration of wealth has reached Third World proportions; it’s not enough that average worker compensation has stagnated since the 1980s; and it’s not enough that all of these were contributing factors in the recent and lingering 2007 financial capitalist crisis. The corporate plutocracy wants more.
Labor unions, the one remaining organizational vehicle that has historically advanced the cause of worker rights, higher wages and benefits, and progressive political mobilization, must be snuffed out altogether. Or, as one right-wing corporate strategist put it: “We want to take labor out at the knees.”
The late, great economist John Kenneth Galbraith wrote that one of the good things about American capitalism was the fact that there existed “countervailing power” to prevent the corporate elite from political and economic domination of the society. This countervailing power can exist only if workers have the ability to organize and assert their interests. Right-to-work laws are designed to make that less likely.
The other factor advertised by Gov. Scott and Enterprise Florida as bait to lure businesses to the state is the absence of a state income tax. While this might sound good to most citizens, and certainly to the rich, what it inevitably means is that tax revenue, which must come from other sources, is collected through regressive (versus progressive) forms of taxation (e.g., sales taxes, fees). Thus those least able to pay — low and middle-income workers — carry a larger tax burden as a percentage of their income than do the wealthiest. More specifically, in 2015, according to Institute on Taxation & Economic Policy’s Tax Inequality Index, Florida has the second-most regressive state and local tax system in the country. In states with regressive tax structures, incomes are less equal after state and local taxes than before.
Neither a “right-to-work” law, nor the absence of an income tax, has served workers in state. Currently Florida has the seventh-highest concentration of low-income workers, at 22 percent (Oxfam America) and the ninth-highest percentage of low-income working families, at 38 percent (The Working Poor Families Project). Rather than spending time poaching jobs from other states on the basis of union-bashing and regressive taxation, Rick Scott might consider proposing policies that would actually improve working conditions and compensation for those workers who currently reside in the state, and are struggling to make ends meet.
Professor of Sociology, University of North Florida