#FightRTW: Why “Right to Work" is a bad deal for millennials

By Luke Sapa

Treasurer St. Louis Young Democrats

On September 16th, the Missouri legislature will yet again take up debate on the rights of working men and women to collectively bargain in the state of Missouri. We’ve been here before. The promise of the Republican led majority is that by passing “Right to Work” legislation and greatly weakening the bargaining power of employees, job creation will flourish. Corporations will flock to the Show Me State, workers will feel a sense of freedom and the state of the union will be stronger. To put it simply, they are wrong.

My great-grandfather was a founder of the Teamsters Local 600 here in St. Louis. An Irish immigrant, he fought to be able to negotiate with his employer with the strength of his employees for a fair wage. My grandfather was a union box maker, who belonged to the United Paperworkers Local 531. Because of this, they were able to provide a better life than they ever had to their respective children. But my father never joined a union - and neither have I...

It’s become a common sentiment, even among progressives, that unions have served their time. That they have provided the American workforce with all it needs to be happy and productive; the weekend, the eight hour workday, basic benefits, Occupational Safety and Health Administration(OSHA) standards, etc. But as we look around at the state of affairs in modern employment - can we all really agree that the work is done?

Income inequality is now the highest it’s been in the U.S. since 1928. The average CEO makes 331 times more than the average worker. Union membership has declined in the past 50 years from representing around 30% of the total workforce to now around just 10%. “Right to Work” states have an average lower wage than non-RTW states. These four devastating facts do not exist independent of each other. They tell a simple, yet tragic, story of the state of the American worker. And yet for some wealthy special interests, it’s still not enough.

The relationship between income inequality and declining union membership is well documented. As low and middle wage workers lose bargaining power, their wages and benefits fall or become stagnant. This, as cited previously, is the case in RTW states. Declining union rates also increases the likelihood of concentrated wealth among top executives.  The International Monetary Fund (IMF) found in a report that "The decline in unionization...appears to be a key contributor to the rise of top income shares." They continue, “By weakening earnings for middle- and low-income workers by reducing their bargaining power, deunionization necessarily increases the income share of corporate managers’ pay and shareholder returns....Moreover, weaker unions can reduce workers’ influence on corporate decisions that benefit top earners, such as the size and structure of top executive compensation.”

Young people make up the lowest percentage of unionized labor in this country. This is a problem. The skilled trades in Missouri and across the country continue to struggle finding qualified recruits for their apprenticeship programs. As young people we should encourage our peers who are looking for a good job with good benefits to go find a union or organize. As a state, we should be doing all we can to expand union apprenticeship programs and get people back to work. Because as the trend lines tell us, we must do something.

But even as we must continue to fight to keep workers able to freely negotiate with their employer - there are signs of the relevancy of today’s unions. The Fight for $15 and a Union movement has swept across the country. Adjunct professors on campuses in our own region have formed unions. Teachers at one of St. Louis’ charter schools have very recently declared their intent to unionize.  These movements inform us that unions can and will adapt to new markets. And as the United Mine Workers of America just reached an agreement with Patriot Coal, it proves that even the oldest unions in the U.S. remain crucial for providing needed bargaining power.

Unions have a long history of fighting for fair wages and working conditions. Right to Work legislation threatens that legacy and our generation's ability to fight for a more equitable share of the economy. Call your legislator and urge them to sustain the veto of HB 116. But supporting workers’ freedom to organize is about more than a vote - it’s about being a voice.  Happy Labor Day!  

UpdatesPaul Sorenson