Anchorage Mayor Dan Sullivan compared union membership to slavery during an Anchorage Chamber of Commerce lieutenant governor candidate forum on Monday. On Wednesday, he started to feel the community reaction.
Sullivan, who is in his second term as mayor, was responding to a question about so-called “Right to Work” legislation. His full remarks were:
I support Right to Work legislation. Nobody should ever have to basically pay a fee to someone else to get a job in this state. I mean, we got rid of slavery a long time ago. You should never have to encumber yourself out of your wages in order to work in this state. It’s a freedom issue, and I strongly support Right to Work legislation.
[Watch the video HERE.]
“Right to Work” is more accurately a marketing strategy — and a brilliant one at that — that manifests as legislation. The term is short, punchy, positive-sounding. A la Frank Luntz, Right to Work advocates use a very carefully scripted bunch of phrases that poll well to drive an agenda. “Rights” are good. “Freedom” is good. “Fees” are bad. Nobody likes paying fees.
And “slavery” is most definitely bad.
Right to Work bills prevent unions from collecting dues from members who simply do not wish to pay. However, unions are still required to represent those non-paying members in disciplinary hearings, and those non-paying members continue to enjoy all the benefits earned by the union through collective bargaining. (Who wouldn’t want that deal? Benefits for free!)
But just like everyday operation has a cost for Business, the operation of a union — including representation and collective bargaining — has a cost. If enough members elect not to pay dues, the union can no longer operate effectively and is, for all intents and purposes, eliminated.
Following World War II, union membership boomed, along with the nation’s economy. The late Forties also saw the beginning of the Cold War with the Soviet Union. Fear of communism, coupled with free market pushback against the New Deal by economists like Milton Friedman, fueled anti-union sentiment. The first Right to Work bills were passed in the South. By 1947, 11 states had passed them, including Nebraska, Iowa, and South Dakota. That year, the Taft-Hartley Act was passed over President Harry Truman’s veto. Among its many amendments to the New Deal-era National Labor Relations Act (also known as the Wagner Act) were provisions forcing union leaders to file affidavits with the Department of Labor denouncing communism and making the closed shop illegal.
The closed shop is key to the pitch that Sullivan and other Right to Work supporters make. What Sullivan describes when he says, “Nobody should ever have to basically pay a fee to someone else to get a job in this state,” has been against federal law for almost 70 years. A closed shop was a workplace that directly hired union members exclusively. Employers can no longer be compelled to hire only union members. There are union security clauses that can be written into contracts mandating that employees must join the recognized union on the property or file a formal objection (usually religious) within a certain amount of time of hire. Those clauses are bargained with, and must be agreed to by, the company. Right to Workers love catch phrases. They do not love the extremely significant nuance of security clauses.
The National Right to Work Committee (NRTWC), formed in 1955, is the lobbying wing of a politically powerful movement to end unions. Its goal is to amend the U.S. Constitution to include language about union dues payments. Following the anti-Clinton midterm election of 1994, which gave control of both chambers to Republicans, a National Right to Work bill did make it to the floor of the U.S. Senate, but failed. The more recent strategy has been to return to the individual states. After a long dry spell in the Eighties and Nineties, Oklahoma became a Right to Work state in 2001. Indiana and Michigan became the 23rd and 24th states with Right to Work laws in 2012, following the 2010 midterms.
(Midterm elections are important! Hey! There’s one this year!)
New Hampshire nearly became the 25th state to pass Right to Work, but the legislature was unable to overcome the veto of Gov. John Lynch. The expectation among the Labor community is that once a majority of states have passed Right to Work bills, the NRTWC will make another strong push for national legislation, which is already introduced every other year on principle. The obvious low hanging fruit are the red states of Kentucky and Alaska.
Many were surprised when Right to Work was not introduced during the 28th Alaska legislature. A big reason for its absence may have been Sullivan’s opponent for the Republican lieutenant governor nomination, Sen. Lesil Mcguire (R-Anchorage). Mcguire told the delegation of the 2013 Alaska AFL-CIO Legislative Conference, at which I was present, that Right to Work would never make it to the floor as long as she was the chair of the Rules Committee.
The fact that the Right to Work question was asked on Monday by the moderator and conservative radio host, Dave Stieren (and that Dan Sullivan was clearly so ready to answer it), suggests Right to Work might become a more public issue in the near future. Sullivan all but guaranteed it by using the word “slavery” in its defense. The NAACP demanded an apology from Sullivan, despite his claims that he was referring specifically to “economic slavery.”
Sullivan said that he was sorry if anyone took offense to the term, but fell short of an apology for actually using it.
It is not shocking that Sullivan used the word. Conservatives have had a weird obsession with slavery recently. From former senator Jim DeMint to rancher Cliven Bundy to an Arizona candidate for U.S. Congress, invoking slavery is all the rage. What is shocking is the context in which Sullivan used it. Again, the Right to Work movement depends on the careful selection of words for mass appeal.
There isn’t a damn thing appealing about slavery.
The word slavery, let alone the practice, is incendiary. It is quickly becoming political hyperbole, akin to calling someone a Commie or a Nazi. But America’s history with slavery is bloody, gruesome, and in many ways, ongoing. Anyone who has seen the 2014 Oscar winner for Best Picture (or at some point stumbled across a history book) would not use the word lightly.
Someone who used the word slavery a lot was Joe Hill. He wrote dozens of songs advocating joining the Industrial Workers of the World, his One Big Union. One of his songs — for my money, his best — begins: “Would you have freedom from wage slavery? Then come join the grand industrial band.” Joe Hill understood that union membership was a ticket out of subjugation.
The numbers agree. Despite union decline in the U.S., union members made over 25 percent more than non-union workers in 2013. Those union workers also had a voice in their workplace, the ability to bargain for things like vacation time, family leave, and workplace safety. That’s why, after witnessing 1,000 of their co-workers crushed in a factory collapse, Bangladeshi garment workers fought to join unions, not seek “freedom” from them.
Union dues are like taxes. Everybody pays a little into a pool to maximize their collective benefit. No one loves paying taxes, but we all love roads and schools and fire trucks. Hell, even Dan Sullivan has been seen at Loussac Library from time to time. Not as much now, as he’s on the campaign trail and lacking the majority support he once enjoyed. But he used to occasionally show up.
If Sullivan wants to become lieutenant governor of the state with the second highest union density in the country, he needs to be more careful about choosing his words, and apologize when he chooses the indefensibly wrong ones. Or preferably, completely rethink his stance on working Alaskans.