The Land of No Unions
Corporate influence and presence helps Alabama, and helps the South. Under no circumstances should our politicians stop trying to attract new businesses to spur our economy. Initiatives to bring new industry to the South should never go out of style with the people who make and implement our policies.
Right-to-work laws, though, are a habit we need to stop and a style we need to buck.
The South champions right-to-work laws — the regulations set forward in the 1950s that make it difficult for workers to collectively bargain and form unions—to bring new industry and develop the traditionally agrarian communities in the region. The term itself somewhat perpetuates an incorrect perception: that people in right-to-work states have the “right to work.” More accurately, the laws mean that workers do not have the right to form unions because workers have the “right to choose not to be in a union.” The result is a work environment in which unions can’t gain the support of all workers and therefore have no real bargaining chips with employers.
Complex legal interpretations aside, the perception nonetheless persists that industries come to Alabama and other Southern states to avoid workers’ unions that remain active and effective elsewhere. Not having to negotiate with the pesky unions about fair pay or better working conditions, for instance, can convince a business to set up shop in Alabama, or so the perception goes.
In reality, we have to make sure companies come to the South for the right reasons. We shouldn’t — and don’t — have to cling to antiquated right-to-work laws as our biggest quality. For one, laws effectively preventing unions create a workplace too saturated with abuse, wage-theft, and disenfranchisement. We have good corporate neighbors, true, but we also have the bad. We also have corporate neighbors so concerned with their bottom line that taking advantage of their employees will never faze them.
For evidence, look no further than the plight of guest workers and migrant workers throughout the South. Guest workers, or workers hired by companies from other countries to work low-paying seasonal jobs, suffer directly because they cannot organize into unions to effectively lobby their employer for better conditions. Without the right to unionize, great incentives to just stay silent keep many guest workers from speaking out about abuses.
For example, if a farming company sprays fields full of working guest workers with pesticides and offers them no protection from the harmful chemicals—a common practice, according to an April 2009 report from the Southern Poverty Law Center—the individual workers must simply take the abuse. To speak out would probably result in termination. Firing, in turn, due to their immigration status as guest workers, would immediately turn them into “illegal immigrants.” Many arrive in the U.S. already in debt from travel expenses, as well as from the poverty they tried to escape in the first place, and can’t just return to their home country.
Because of the lack of the right to organize into unions, it becomes better to live illegally as an alien than legally as a guest worker subject to real and persistent abuse. In this way, right-to-work laws directly perpetuate the worst aspects of what the public sees as “illegal immigration.”
Workplace hazards aren’t all that slip through the cracks created by right-to-work, and “illegal immigration” isn’t the only problem it perpetuates. The enforcement of a minimum wage is pathetic, and wage theft where employers deny compensation for injured workers runs rampant. Guest and migrant workers are lured to the United States with promises of high salaries and discover that, due to a lack of accountability, the companies making promises have no real incentive to make good on them.
In all, right-to-work laws hold the South back. We make progress as new corporations come in, sure, but is it real progress? When we can only sell ourselves as the Land of No Unions, do we really progress at all? We don’t have to revert to a system and code of laws that perpetuates unethical practices to move our communities forward, and we shouldn’t.
So, policymakers in Montgomery, Atlanta, Jackson, and Nashville, sell the South on our best qualities, not our worst, and do away with right-to-work.
Will Tucker is a freshman majoring in international relations. His column runs on Fridays.