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The big grudge match: will Clinton's labor weakness doom 'right-to-work' laws?


Find a union organizer and a company manager in Arkansas, sit them down and ask what they think about the right-to-work law.

Thanks to Bill Clinton, this ploy is a guaranteed donnybrook.

At high tide in the general election campaign, the president-elect surprised union and corporate interests alike by giving the cold shoulder to state laws that ban compulsory union membership as a condition of employment.

Among corporate tycoons, these state guidelines are known patriotically as "right-to-work" laws. In union halls the concept is pejoratively termed the "right to work for less."

Clinton's stance is so surprising because Arkansas happens to be one of the 21 right-to-work states and, in more than 10 years as governor, Clinton made no attempt to attack the law.

Praised by companies and states as a tool for industrial recruitment and retention, the right-to-work laws were allowed under section 14(b) of the Taft-Hartley Act of 1947.

Clinton has cautiously said he would not fight for a bill to repeal 14(b), but he would sign it if Congress approves.

"I absolutely think it should be repealed," says Jack Sams of Memphis, Tenn., executive vice president of the International Woodworkers of America.

The open-shop law puts Sams in a bind.

The union's Local 5-15 has a contract with four Weyerhaeuser Co. plants in Wright City, Okla., and the Arkansas cities of DeQueen, Dierks and Mountain Pine.

Since Oklahoma has no open-shop law, a great number of the 650 Oklahoma workers pay dues to the union, but membership among the 800 Arkansas workers is relatively scarce.

"Everybody in the outfit gets the same benefit, whether they are union or not," Sams says. "I feel like everybody who's covered should bear some of the expenses of it."

No War Paint Yet

If the AFL-CIO is planning a frontal assault on right-to-work laws during this session of Congress, its battle plans are well-concealed. The national office says its real priority is putting through a strong bill to prevent permanent strike replacements.

But the right-to-work lobby is convinced a labor war is imminent. It is counting votes in the U.S. Senate in the event of an eruption.

What has the law done for Arkansas?

State officials and corporate interests say it is a godsend for industry.

Then, there are the non-believers.

"I don't think that it's made a hell of a lot of difference in Arkansas, except in the case where you have exploitive employers," asserts the wily J. Bill Becker, president of the state AFL-CIO. "There is no evidence that these laws attract industry."

Becker has a vision of the state without the law.

Unions' rolls would grow, creating more leverage for negotiations and raising the incomes of many Arkansas workers, he says.

The additional income would, in turn, mean higher revenues from state income tax and sales taxes, which would lead to a higher quality of life for the state, Becker holds.

Dave Harrington, executive director of the Arkansas Industrial Development Commission, dreads the day the right-to-work law is repealed, though he swears it will never happen.

"I think that would be dramatically wrong," Harrington says. "It would accelerate the decline of the manufacturing base in the U.S. It's sending the wrong signal.

"There is a fairly large percentage of companies that are interested in a right-to-work state, because they feel it starts them on a level playing field with labor."

Who is right?

Well, which study are you reading?

U.S. government statistics gathered by the National Institute for Labor Relations Research -- an anti-union group -- appear to show an even blend of benefits and liabilities in right-to-work states compared with their heavily unionized counterparts.

The Numbers Game

Analyzing changes between 1980 and 1990 figures, right-to-work states had better growth in total non-agricultural jobs, manufacturing jobs and service jobs. Unemployment rates and tax collections were lower.

But wait. In states without open-shop laws there was better growth in construction jobs, per-capita personal income and the number of authorized housing units.

This is somewhat contradictory. Shouldn't the states with the jobs have more construction activity?

Little Rock economist Charles Venus says the study could be skewed by comparing two distant years rather than the continuous changes in the period between them.

Like the other mostly Southern states that jumped on the right-to-work bandwagon, Arkansas was poor, in need of industry and largely without unions to fear in 1947.

In the open-shop era, Venus says the state's per capita income as a percentage of the national figure has risen from a low of 56 percent to 78 percent.

"It's a positive, overall," Venus says. "The important thing about right to work is not wage control ... What you have are far less problems with the work rules. That's what has driven industry crazy. It's the old concept that a carpenter can drive a nail, but a plumber can't."

Venus notes, however, that closed-shop states have a higher tax burden simply because they are mostly urban Northern states that require more maintenance.

There is no evidence that unions are responsible for higher taxes, he says.

In a similar vein, James Bennett, an economist with George Mason University in Fairfax, Va., says closed-shop states only have higher wages because unions locate in high-paying states. There is no evidence that unions actually raise wages, he says.

And so it goes with right-to-work debates. There are few indisputable facts to be had.

For all the rhetorical fury, the Clinton-inspired hullabaloo may wane into oblivion, for Section 14(b) could prove impenetrable in Congress.

It takes 60 votes to obtain a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate. With 21 states in the right-to-work column, that labels 42 senators as probable opponents of a bill to repeal.

In the 100-member Senate, that would be enough to sustain a filibuster and kill the bill. Even if the right-to-work state senators do not vote as a solid block, there are Republican senators in free collective bargaining states who probably will vote anti-union.

A Pro-Labor Climate?

But the posturing persists.

"Organized labor is making it clear this is going to be a big push," says Martin Fox of the The Right to Work Foundation in Washington, D.C., which is supported by 1.7 million members.

Fox notes that a bill to disallow permanent strike replacements came close to becoming law in 1992. It passed both houses of Congress and President Bush vetoed it. The House overrode the veto, but the Senate did not.

Sens. Dale Bumpers and David Pryor, both D-Ark., were among those who sustained the filibuster against the override.

The foundation fears that the same senators who voted pro-labor on that issue will support repeal of Section 14(b), and there will be no Bush to put on the brakes this time.

In Arkansas, there already has been one feeble attempt to repeal the right-to-work law, led by none other than Becker. He learned a painful lesson about politics in 1976 when the initiated act was trounced by a 2-1 margin.

"The argument for repeal is very complicated," Becker laments. "The argument against repeal is very simple."

Sixteen years ago, Becker was telling everyone who would listen that Arkansas manufacturing wages were $1.18 per hour less than the national average, and strong unions could help remedy the problem. Now Becker says the wages are $2.33 per hour below the national average.

The State Chamber of Commerce takes a different view.

"Last year, Arkansas' industrial base grew at 8,000 jobs," says Ron Russell, executive vice president of the chamber. "I attribute a lot of that to the right to work.

"What's important to the American work force now is quality management -- employees working with management to solve problems. In general, unions hamper the principles of quality management.

"When unions were formed during the days of the sweatshop, they served a useful purpose. Unions have outlived their purpose."

Becker dismisses the thought.

"As long as human beings are running factories and as long as there is a profit motive, that will never happen," he says. "But if we had Utopia, we wouldn't need a union."

No one can deny that unions have an innocuous presence in Arkansas.

No Union Labels Here

According to the U.S. Department of Labor, Arkansas had 119,000 union members in 1980. The state ranked 40th in union membership as a percentage of non-agricultural employment, at 16 percent.

By contrast, neighboring Missouri, which has no right-to-work law, had 27.4 percent union affiliation, with 544,000 members.

Indeed, membership is dwindling across the country. Becker claims the culprit is the shift of the U.S. economy from the traditionally unionized manufacturing industry to service jobs, which have not been effectively organized.

In the movies, the organization of a union seems as explosive as the eruption of the Russian Revolution, but the true process is more grueling and less dramatic.

It begins with hundreds and thousands of leaflets, handshakes and home visits with workers. There are meetings, at which workers are canvassed to sign cards petitioning the National Labor Relations Board for a union election. The NLRB is an independent agency created by Congress to oversee relationships between unions and employees.

If and when the union obtains signatures from at least 30 percent of the workers at a plant, the cards are sent to the NLRB, which investigates their authenticity.

When the green light is given, the NLRB holds a secret-ballot election at the plant. If a simple majority of the workers vote for the union, it obtains the exclusive rights to bargain on behalf of the workers.

Sometimes that means striking.

Russell Gunter, a Little Rock attorney who specializes in representing management in labor disputes, has no doubt the repeal of Arkansas' open-shop law would lead to more strikes over the subject of forced union membership.

Becker scoffs.

"I think a union that strikes over the issue of paying dues or not is foolish," he says "They say if this law passes, everyone is going to have to join a union. That's bull * * * *."

Becker says the repeal would merely make compulsory dues or membership a negotiable item.

Not all union officials agree with him.

"I think it would have a major impact as to the employers around the state that are non-union," says Cecil Casey, president of United Food and Commercial Workers Local 2008, which has a contract with Arkansas Kroger Co. and Harvest Foods Inc. grocery store chains.

"I think the companies would be much harder to deal with if there is compulsory union membership," he says.

Friends and Enemies

At ALCOA of Bryant, which Becker considers a good friend of labor, it seems possible that an accord could be reached on compulsory dues.

Fully 488 of the 674 on-site employees are in the United Steel Workers of America bargaining unit.

But it is a different story at Tyson Foods Inc. The Springdale-based poultry giant is the nemesis of the state's AFL-CIO.

"They are anti-union," Becker says. "They want to keep the unions weak."

Tyson spokesman Archie Schaffer does not mince words on the subject.

"We don't feel that unions are necessary in our plants," he says.

Less than 5 percent of Tyson employees are union members, and those work at plants Tyson purchased after they already had been unionized.

There is a unionized Tyson processing plant in Pine Bluff, and another in Dardanelle, but Tyson no longer recognizes the union there. Schaffer says 900 of the 1,100 Tyson people there signed a petition calling for an election to decertify the union, but the union prevented an election.

An administrative law judge has ruled in favor of the union, and Tyson has appealed to the NLRB.

Right or wrong, the very term "union" has become something of a nasty word in Arkansas business circles.

Whether the labor movement in Arkansas will continue to be mired in such low esteem could depend largely on the fate of the right-to-work concept, and the conscience of President-elect Clinton.

"The only way he will come to his senses is if the American people bring him to his senses," says Martin Fox of the National Right to Work Committee. "It's a question of who works harder."

And who has the best left hook.
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Article Details
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Author:Haman, John
Publication:Arkansas Business
Date:Jan 11, 1993
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