By Steven Greenhouse
President Donald Trump has repeatedly attacked the North American Free Trade Agreement, calling it the “worst trade deal ever negotiated.” Angry about the U.S. trade deficit with Mexico, he warned that unless Mexico and Canada agreed to revamp NAFTA to his liking, he’d tear it up.
Trump seemed to think that renegotiating NAFTA would be easy, and that he’d get the talks to focus on Mexico’s lower wages and labor standards—which he views as undercutting the blue-collar workers he wooed during the campaign. In recent NAFTA talks, however, Canada turned the tables by arguing that U.S. labor standards are a problem as well. According to the Globe & Mail newspaper, Canada asserted that lower standards in the United States and Mexico give those countries an unfair advantage. Canada insisted, in particular, that the U.S. end its so-called right-to-work laws.
Jerry Dias, president of Canada’s largest private-sector union, told reporters, “Canada’s got two problems: the low wage rates in Mexico and the right-to-work states in the United States.”
Is that just bluster, or do the Canadians have a point?
Under federal law, when a majority of workers at a workplace vote to unionize, the union wins exclusive representation and bargains for all the employees there. But right-to-work laws bar any requirement that employees at unionized, private-sector workplaces pay dues to the unions that represent them.
Republican-dominated legislatures in Wisconsin, Kentucky, Missouri and West Virginia have recently approved right-to-work measures, bringing the total number of states that now have such laws to 28. GOP lawmakers maintain that they’re being pro-worker by protecting employees’ freedom not to have to pay compulsory fees.
Unions, however, argue that right to work is unfair because it enables “free riders” who refuse to pay even though they receive union services. Union officials and Democrats also argue that the real reason that Republicans—immediately after winning control of a legislature—race to enact right-to-work laws is to weaken unions because Republicans see them as pillars of the Democratic Party.
Many labor leaders ask, if the Republicans who embrace right to work are such champions of workers, why do they repeatedly oppose other pro-worker measures, whether a higher minimum wage, paid sick leave or paid parental leave?
There is no denying that right-to-work laws weaken unions. Russel Sobel, an economics professor at the Citadel, found that the share of free riders in right-to-work states ranged from 9 percent in Georgia to 39 percent in South Dakota. If 39 percent of workers refuse to pay union dues, that’s a hefty hit to a union’s treasury, and perhaps to its ability to mount a strike or get out the vote.
Overall, right-to-work laws, after accounting for other factors, caused union membership to drop 5 percent to 10 percent.
The Economic Policy Institute, a labor-backed research center, has also found that in right-to-work states, wages were 3.1 percent—or $1,558—lower per worker per year, after taking the cost of living and other factors into account.
It’s hardly crazy, then, for Canadians to argue that right-to-work laws unfairly weaken American unions and thereby give U.S. businesses an improper advantage over Canada’s.
Of course it’s highly unlikely the Canadians will get their way: The Trump administration has already told Canada that it won’t agree to ending right-to-work laws. Regardless, the percentage of workers in unions will continue to fall.
The percentage of private-sector workers in unions has dropped from 35 percent in the 1950s, to 6.4 percent today—the lowest level in a century. Right to work is just one factor in that decline; other factors include imports, automation, outsourcing and corporate America’s stepped-up resistance to unions.
Paralleling their fight for right-to-work laws, conservatives are pushing to end any requirements that government employees pay union dues. According to the Guardian, a network of conservative think tanks has begun a nationwide campaign that aims to “defund and defang” public-sector unions, like teachers unions, as a step toward crippling progressive politics in the U.S. (which public-sector unions help to finance).
Before Justice Antonin Scalia died, it looked as if the Supreme Court, in a case brought by several California public school teachers, would rule 5 to 4 that requiring government workers to pay fees to the unions that represent them (when they might have disagreements with their union) violates the workers’ First Amendment rights. After Scalia died, the court deadlocked 4-4 in that case. But with Justice Neil Gorsuch replacing Scalia, the court is expected to rule in an Illinois case that government employees can’t be forced to pay union fees. That would create a right-to-work rule for government employees nationwide.
All this comes as business increasingly swamps labor unions in spending on election campaigns. In the 2015-16 election cycle, business outspent labor 17-1 in national elections—$3.4 billion to $205 million—according to the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics.
At least the Canadians’ quixotic push to end right to work reveals Trump’s inaction on labor issues. During last year’s campaign, he complained mightily about wage stagnation under President Barack Obama. Since his inauguration, however, Trump hasn’t done a thing to lift workers’ wages—indeed he has hurt wages by undercutting an Obama rule to extend overtime pay to 4 million more workers.
President Donald Trump and Melania Trump were quick to visit Texas in Hurricane Harvey’s wake last month, arriving just as relief efforts were getting underway.
Today, we expect the White House and federal agencies to provide effective leadership in mitigating national disasters, which people until the 20th century fatalistically viewed as unavoidable “acts of God.” Over the past century, American society has steadily expanded disaster relief efforts.
During that same period, the mass media have played an increasingly important role in reporting terrible events in graphic human terms. Severe storm reporting shows the complex contemporary interplay between media and people. Haiti earthquake relief early in 2010 followed a similar pattern.
Photography transformed newspapers by adding graphic, sometimes shocking, visual images to text. Radio and television greatly expanded the capacity of the news to communicate the emotional, human aspects of events. The internet and cell phones carry the process farther.
Simultaneously, Americans have steadily raised their expectations of government. President George W. Bush suffered serious political damage from public perception that he seemed both ineffective and uncaring in reaction to the Hurricane Katrina devastation.
One very widely distributed photo showed Bush in Air Force One, gazing down at the floodwaters far, far below. Combined with news that an unqualified socialite friend was in charge of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the image of Bush far above the fray proved costly.
By contrast, in 1906, another Republican president, Theodore Roosevelt, established the precedent of immediate and direct White House involvement after the San Francisco earthquake. His initiatives included a quick congressional appropriation of $2.5 million, a radical move and a substantial sum for that time.
Teddy Roosevelt also involved the military in humanitarian relief. The USS Chicago rescued 20,000 people, still one of the largest amphibious evacuations in history. Soldiers distributed food, water and medical supplies.
Military methods also restored order. Soldiers and police shot an estimated 500 looters, including 34 men who attempted to rob U.S. Mint and Treasury buildings that contained $239 million in bullion and cash.
There was no FEMA, created during the Carter administration. Roosevelt instead stressed the role of the Red Cross. During Haiti earthquake and Hurricane Sandy relief efforts, the Obama White House website had a link to the Red Cross.
Future President Herbert Hoover further expanded the U.S. approach to disaster relief, including overseas humanitarian assistance. During and after World War I, he led the enormous U.S. Food Administration and American Relief Administration, credited with preventing devastating mass starvation in Europe.
In 1927, Commerce Secretary Hoover spearheaded an enormous humanitarian effort after huge Mississippi River flooding. The people confirmed Hoover—temporarily—as a great American hero, securing him the 1928 Republican presidential nomination and election to the White House.
In 1965, Hurricane Betsy became the first Gulf Coast storm to create more than $1 billion in damage. President Lyndon Johnson immediately flew to New Orleans and spent many hours visiting storm victims, slogging through water to isolated shacks, anxious Secret Service agents and local politicians in tow. Follow-up federal relief was comprehensive.
U.S. presidents for more than a century have developed this tradition as a leadership test.