Right-to-work and the Making of the American Precariat

Citizen Wealth Financial Justice Labor Organizing

6a00e54ef168098833014e867c6776970d-400wiEdinburgh       Ok, I’ll admit it.  Having stumbled on this term “precariat” recently in conversations in London, referring to an emerging class of workers and families, vital to the neo-liberal business model but unmoored from the current economy and lacking any income or job security, I’m noticing it everywhere.  Most recently I read a piece in Labor Studies Journal by Joseph Varga, a professor at Indiana State, called “Dispossession is Nine-tenths of the Law:  Right-to-work and the Making of the American Precariat.”  Varga looks at the successful organizational and political fight labor waged in Indiana to turn back right-to-work legislation in the 1950’s compared to the butt whipping taken in the re-establishment of right-to-work in 2010 and labor’s inability to overturn that legislation in 2012.

Remember that right-to-work in the USA is a misnomer referring to the fact that unions cannot negotiate union security agreements where nonmembers pay some fees for services provided by the union under collective agreements, thereby creating a situation forcing unions to do the work, while many workers are financially “free riders.”  Coupling right-to-work with precarity is interesting as well, since the surge in precarious employment in Britain also follows open shop membership conditions forced on the UK labor movement in the Thatcher run and allowed to stand under New Labor’s Blair and Brown therefore maintaining to the current time.

I’ll spare readers all of the pain of Varga’s retelling of this defeat in Indiana, but none of us can dodge the gut punch in this conclusions and what they augur for our collective future:

Most importantly, the passage of RTW [right-to-work] in Indiana and Michigan is indicative of a larger trend among blue and white collar workers, whose connections to organized labor are already tenuous at best.  While demographic trends at the national level indicate that anti-worker Republicans may have increasing troubles winning national office, trends in the states with redrawn electoral maps may lock in pro-business, deregulatory majorities that continue to dismantle the thin safety net and force workers at the lower end of the wage and salary scale into precarious positions.  This contemporary workforce, operating without the labor market securities that encouraged political coalitions based on maintenance of living standards, may be continually fractured and drawn into new political alliances and formations, with some segments attracted by nationalisms or reactionary populism and others by anti-statist, anti-systemic radicalisms.   Nothing can be said for certain about what will emerge, but organized labor’s relative lack of strength in Indiana and Michigan does seem to indicate that the old coalitions are indeed over, and nothing has emerged as a viable replacement for working-class politics.


Scary enough for you?   The 40% drop in union membership in Indiana in the 20-year period between 1990 and 2010, plummeting union density from 21% to 11%, set the table for this disaster.   Varga’s interviews found that by 2012 overturning right-to-work was poorly understand even as a critical issue by workers, both formal and informal, and even seemed a yawner and someone else’s problem to progressives in the state, mired and distracted in an eroded culture of defeat.

Without an extensive organizing effort to build collective formations to fight and win among precarious workers, we will also not be able to get the political traction from the most imperiled, but numerically significant, part of our base to resist being forced into even further retreats on the political front.  Without embracing new organizing and political strategies, we’re seemingly locked in a death spiral, where unions are weakening so severely that it allows coalitions with our allies to crumble with the knowledge that we can no longer protect them politically with our diminished numbers, moving them to run for other cover, and simultaneously encouraging our opponents to come after all of us even more fiercely.

With the inadequacy of our defense, we have to have a more aggressive, organizing offense.


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