Strategists Split Over Local Right-to-Work

The Local Right to Work strategy is not universally supported, even among conservatives, business organizations, and others who support a worker’s right not to join or pay dues to a union.

Presidential candidate Rand Paul, who helped get the Local RTW movement underway in the state, joined with his fellow Kentucky Senator, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, to author a February 8 op-ed in which they stated: “Local jurisdictions throughout the commonwealth are fed up with waiting for a state or federal law that will provide them with the safety net from big labor they need. That’s why we support Warren County’s recent move to pass its own right-to-work legislation. Other Kentucky counties, including Simpson, Fulton, Todd and Hardin, have followed Warren County’s lead to stay competitive. Local jurisdictions should do everything they can to increase their own competitiveness, which is why we applaud other counties in Kentucky following in their footsteps.”

The concept is backed by people associated with most of the leading groups in the Right to Work field, including Americans for Tax Reform and its affiliate, the Center for Worker Freedom; the Bluegrass institute, Kentucky’s state-level conservative think tank; the American City County Exchange, representing conservative local officials; the Tea Party-oriented group Americans for Prosperity; the Kentucky Chamber of Commerce; and Protect My Check, a 501(c)(4) nonprofit organization that helps workers who stand up to unions.

But there’s a group missing from the list: the National Right to Work Committee, the nation’s most prominent organization focusing on the issue. The committee was formed in 1955, with Fred Hartley, the co-sponsor of Taft-Hartley, as its president. (Disclosure: My father, a movie projectionist, was helped by NRWC in the early 1960s after the local theatrical workers’ union refused to let him join and he was fired from his job for not being a union member.) NRWC’s sister organization, the National Right to World Legal Defense Foundation, was founded in 1968.

Sean Higgins of the Washington Examiner reported:

The rift came into public view Wednesday [February 4] when the president of the National Right to Work Committee said he had been . . . chewed out by Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky.

“I got lectured for 15 minutes by Senator Rand Paul yesterday on this very issue, saying that we had made so many people mad about our position,” said NRTW President Mark Mix during an appearance at the conservative Leadership Institute. The comments were in reaction to a question from the audience.

Later in the speech, Mix said: “Like I said, I got a call from a well-recognized politician saying, ‘People are so mad at you. You’ve set back the right-to-work cause for years.’ That’s literally a quote.” . . .

Matt Patterson, executive director of the Center for Worker Freedom . . . says that that progress shows the approach is working. “Clearly what we are seeing in Kentucky and elsewhere is legislators realizing that there is an appetite for this,” he said.

NRTW sharply disagrees, saying the legal argument is weak and that it is bad political strategy to boot because it will undermine efforts to pass laws at the state level. Lawmakers higher up in the political establishment won’t feel as much pressure if they think the issue has already been addressed, Mix said.

“In Kentucky, we are very close to passing a right-to-work law. In fact, the state senate passed a right-to-work law by a two-to-one vote,” Mix said in his Wednesday speech. “The [legislative] sponsor of the right-to-work bill down there is now saying that they will not have a vote in the Kentucky statehouse because the local option is the way to go.”

Mix also argued that it was a bad approach because county ordinances can be fairly easily overturned and unions are well-organized at that political level. On the other hand, no state right-to-work law has ever been overturned, he noted.

The split is of a familiar type to anyone who follows politics or history. It arises between those who believe in a strategy of incremental change and those who take an all-or-nothing approach.

Should the American colonists seek the rights of British citizens while remaining loyal to the King, or fight for independence? Should opponents of slavery in the U.S. seek to limit the importation of enslaved people and prevent the extension of slavery into new territories, or demand immediate abolition? Should the U.S. attack the Soviet Empire, or contain it, deny it money and technology, and otherwise create the conditions to bring about its collapse from within? Should supporters of healthcare reform demand the outright repeal of Obamacare, or settle in the short term for “fixing” its worst provisions?

On the one hand, every time a jurisdiction enacts a Right to Work law, it puts competitive pressure on neighboring governments to enact such laws. On the other hand, a patchwork approach prevents RTW supporters from, say, turning the next election into an up-or-down referendum on the concept, which is supported by an overwhelming majority of Kentuckians.

As in football—Do you go for three yards and a first down, or throw the bomb for a touchdown?—the correct answer isn’t always clear. Sometimes an incremental approach creates a domino effect and helps you reach your ultimate goal, and sometimes it lets the steam out of your engine. Sometimes an all-or-nothing approach gets you all, and sometimes it gets you nothing.

About the Author:  Dr. Steven J. Allen covers labor union organizing and the environmental movement for Capitol Research Center. He previously served as press secretary to U.S. Senator Jeremiah Denton, as editor of Tea Party Review magazine, and as senior researcher for Newt Gingrich 2012. He has a master’s degree in political science from Jacksonville State University, a law degree from Cumberland Law School, and a PhD in Biodefense from the College of Science at George Mason University. This article originally appeared in the May 2014 issue of Labor Watch and appears here with permission.

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