Right to Work as a Religious Liberty Concern

With a new Republican governor and a legislature with a strong Republican majority, Missourians saw some changes this year coming out of their state capital. One of the quickest and most striking turnarounds had to do with right-to-work legislation.

This had been a top priority for Show-Me Republicans for years, fought ardently by labor unions and their allies with billboards, bumper stickers and bushels of dollars. One of the first bills to be filed in December, right-to work specifies, in part, that a person cannot be required to become a member of a labor organization, or to pay dues to the union, as a condition of employment.

The bill passed both houses quickly, and Missouri Gov. Eric Greitens signed it into law on February 6, to go into effect August 28. Immediately after it was signed, Missouri labor unions kicked off a petition drive to get an estimated 90,000 signatures by that date to put the law on hold and place the question on the 2018 general election ballot.

Over the years, the debate around right-to-work in Missouri and elsewhere has centered predominantly on economic benefits. Those who oppose it, such as the statewide organization Protect MO Families, trot out research that, they argue, show that right-to-work states have lower wages, endangered job safety and a worse overall business climate. Those on the other side offer studies arguing the opposite.

It is relatively easy to do the math on issues like this, if math is what they are really about, or what they really should be about. But not only does the math often ignore the problem of comparing one state to another, it also forgets that there is another way of looking at right-to-work that digs a little deeper. When you look at some of the opponents of right-to-work, this can be frustrating. They should know better. For, while Protect MO Families is funded primarily (98 percent, according to one report by Missouri Watchdog) by the local carpenters’ union political action committee, it enjoys the support of many of the state’s religious leaders—organizations and individuals who should think above and beyond merely economic arguments.

These religious leaders need to reconsider the subject and their support, and reframe their response accordingly. It really is a fair question, after all—should employees be forced to join a union and pay dues as a condition of employment, especially if they were already on the job when the union came along, and especially if they find side issues the unions support to be morally repugnant?

Answering this requires looking at how unions operate. Were the only union activity collective bargaining, that might be one thing; however, unions have become ferociously politicized, even in areas that don’t directly pertain to the workplace.

A recent report from the Center for Union Facts finds that the major U.S. unions gave nearly a half billion dollars to left-leaning organizations between 2012 and 2014, including supporting many groups with which many religious leaders will have some serious problems.

According to this group’s research, well over 90 percent of unions’ political contributions went to left-leaning causes—despite the fact that union members are increasingly conservative. In fact, November 2016 exit polls showed Donald Trump winning more than 40 percent of union households—and more than half in the key state of Ohio. When it comes to the National Education Association, which represents public-school teachers, more than nine out of every ten dollars in political contributions went to Democrats. Are there that many Democrats teaching? No, fewer than half are registered with the party.

More recently, another writer has hit upon the observation of how much union membership has changed since the 1950s, shifting from the private, manufacturing sector to the public service sector. “In 1955, 35 percent of private sector workers were in a union,” Grant Starrett writes. “Today, less than 7 percent are. In 1955, less than 6 percent of public sector workers were in a union. Today, 34 percent are. In 1955, perhaps 3 percent of union members worked in the public sector. Today … it’s half.”

A post-election POLITICO story reported how union leaders are “searching for answers” and “digging into” why union members spurned Clinton. Someone has a lot of explaining to do, apparently. Meanwhile, at the national level, there is a push for a federal “Employee Rights Act,” a federal right-to-work bill that will provide common-sense protections for workers when it comes to selecting representation by a union.

As a matter of conscience and general principle, men and women should not be required to join organizations they morally oppose just to keep their job, and they certainly should have a stronger say in what sort of programs and groups their union dues and fees support—and the freedom to opt out entirely without fear of reprisal or termination. This is what right-to-work hopes to accomplish, and those who are pushing the hardest for religious liberty, or who should be pushing hardest for it, should view their cooperation with labor groups with this in mind. The last thing they should want is to provide aid and comfort to the enemy.

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K. E. Colombini is a former journalist who served as a political speechwriter before a career in corporate communications. A Thomas Aquinas College alumnus, he also studied English literature at Sonoma State University in Northern California. In addition to Crisis, Colombini has been published in First Things, Inside the Vatican, The American Conservative and the Homiletic and Pastoral Review. He and his wife live in suburban St. Louis, and have five children and four grandchildren.

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