The right to work for a fair wage was considered such an important civil rights issue during the 1960s that one of the 10 demands of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom was a: “A national minimum wage act that will give all Americans a decent standard of living”. The amount they proposed was $2, which would be $15 in today’s money. Our federal minimum wage is currently only $7.25.
But “right-to-work” laws – that half of all states in America fall under – do diddly squat to fix a minimum wage law that provides workers with less than a living wage. The misleadingly named law has nothing to do with any increased access to employment: it really only gives people the “right” to work in increasingly non-unionized, low-wage, split-shift jobs that may require hours of uncompensated time .
“Right-to-work” laws remove the obligation on employees to pay union dues, while still requiring unions to represent the interests of workers who are not paying members. Wisconsin – once a labor stronghold – is the latest state to join the list of right-to-work states after Governor Scott Walker signed its bill into law last week.
Proponents of right to-work frame their position as freedom for “America’s workers from the abuses of unionism” – an abuse only forced upon about 11 % of workers in the United States. And while the list of things workers don’t like about their job seems to grow daily, the path to recourse for workers only grows smaller.
According to the Wall Street Journal , right-to-work bills have weakened labor unions in states where they’ve appeared and have led to the suppression of wages. Examples of unfair labor practices abound as a result. Consider Amazon workers in Nevada, who sometimes spend 25 minutes per day to be searched by security as they leave their shift – but are not paid for that time.
Right-to-work has come to mean laboring under any conditions which benefit employers – but some workers are fighting back.
One place of hope is in the collegiate workplace. At New York University, where I am a doctoral student worker, the Graduate Student Organizing Committee and the UAW won an historic contract last week, making NYU once again the only private university with a unionized graduate student workforce in the United States.
Just days later, the National Labor Relations Board “handed a win” to graduate students at Columbia University and the New School, by reviving their bids for similar union recognition which had previously been dismissed . College student athletes have also been on the offense in getting their work recognized by universities. Football players voted on unionization at Northwestern University last April (the results have been uncounted and impounded pending appeals ), and a federal district judge ruled last August that players can be paid by universities for use of their name and likeness.
Labor movement victories are not just found in the academic sphere: fast food and retail workers are also fighting back against employers efforts to extract as much work out of them for wages which leave them needing public assistance . WalMart workers staged strikes on Black Friday in multiple states last year, and the company modestly increased wages a couple months later. Meanwhile, the Fight for $15 , a national movement for a living wage which started when fast food workers walked off the job in 2012 , has been in a “fight for $15 an hour and the right to form a union without retaliation” for fast food and other workers, resulting in protests at more than 100 fast food restaurants last September. The campaign has also heightened safety issues of fast food work, such as McDonald’s allegedly telling employees to treat burns with condiments and keep working while injured on the job, and .
When Bayard Rustin read the March on Washington’s demand for $2 an hour, he framed fair compensation as a moral imperative as important as the vote and an end to segregation. Martin Luther King and 250,000 Americans gathered near the Lincoln Memorial agreed. That call, which is a civil rights issue at heart, is still unanswered, as the Fight for $15 movement is pressing for the same amount in today’s terms. It is no less urgent today.
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