By Joe Hill
Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner and Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker surprised constituents in their respective states Tuesday by redefining the concept of “right to work,” a principle both had previously advanced under a different guise.
Rauner and Walker were champions of what has come to be called “right to work” legislation. The legislation, enacted in 25 of the 50 states in the US, prohibits unions from collecting “fair share” payments from workers to support the collective bargaining that benefits them.
More than 150 years ago, the notion of “right to work” meant something different, especially in France where the “droit au travail” campaign recognized society’s responsibility to guarantee everyone in need the right to fairly remunerated labor under decent conditions. Since concentrated power reacted to the passage in 1935 of the National Labor Relations Act in the US, the meaning of so-called “right to work” has been inverted. It has come to mean the “right” to sell one’s labor power and submit to the authority of those owning or in control of an enterprise without having to contribute to the organizational efforts of fellow workers struggling to obtain decent pay and protections for all workers from those who purchase human labor as a commodity and otherwise control it.
But Rauner and Walker want a return to the old usage.
“I’m a conservative,” said Rauner, who garnered attention not long ago for his billionaire status and anti-union agenda. “As a conservative, I don’t like these new meanings being attached to words. I’m contesting what ‘right-to-work’ has come to mean, and calling for a return to the principles of what the term used to signify.”
More than mere re-appropriation of old meaning, Rauner said he aims to implement the mid-nineteenth century version of the “right to work” program.
“The move is consistent with my platform,” Rauner said. “I distrust dangerous progressive measures. Associating “right to work” with new ideas – even those generated decades ago – is too progressive, even if it is actually regressive for working people. Despite the appeal of crushing labor, I’m just uncomfortable with the idea that things – including what phrases denote – can change over time. So I guess I have to support unions now, you know?”
Walker, who ignited a pro-labor fire in Madison when he signed legislation back in 2011 to curb collective bargaining rights for public employees, recently signed a “right-to-work” bill that bars mandatory collection of union dues necessary for keeping organized labor afloat.
Even more recently, he has reversed course.
“While signing the ‘right-to-work’ bill, I sat at that table with the banner hanging down that read ‘Freedom to Work’ – only to realize later I was not promoting freedom,” Walker said. “The mid-nineteenth century ‘right to work’ campaign made it clear that the freedom to work for a decent pay – a freedom denied by my legislation – is the sort of freedom I should really favor.”
Walker said he long-planned to turn back the clock on labor rights, but now he’s turning back the clock even further to stay true to his conservative values while ironically supporting organized labor.
“Sure this comes after I implicitly compared anti-austerity protestors in Wisconsin to an organization the US drops bombs on abroad, and it comes after I claimed the ‘most consequential foreign policy decision’ of my lifetime was Reagan’s decision to break the air-traffic controllers when they went on strike in 1981,” Walker said about actual assertions he really made. “Yet, I’m not doing this – and I doubt my buddy Bruce in Illinois is doing this – to restore our union cred. Rather, we have a legacy to protect.”
The recasting of “right to work” heralds another sea-change, Reaganesque moment, Rauner said.
If it re-empowers the working classes who have been systematically dis-empowered since Reagan’s infamous confrontation with the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization, so be it, Walker added.
“Reagan is my personal hero, but I’m going farther back in history to reclaim popular-progressive movements for conservatives,” he said.
Rauner and Walker both said they are absolutely serious about the recasting of “right to work,” and they added more outlets like the Advocate should run serious stories about such serious news.