Sunday, April 5, 2009

Guam: Hearings on Bill to Repeal 'Right to Work' Legislation

Bill 20, a bill that would repeal Guam's "Right to Work" law passed in 2000, has been introduced by three Democratic senators --Respicio, Cruz and Guthertz. Hearings are scheduled for the beginning of this week.

"Right to Work" legislation is permitted under the provisions of the Taft-Hartley Act, which was passed by Congress in 1947 over President Truman's veto. The Taft-Hartley Act reversed many of the gains that organized labour had secured under the depression-era Wagner Act (1935). Where the Wagner Act protected craft and industrial unions from "unfair labour practices" by employers, the Taft-Hartley Act addressed itself mostly to "unfair labour practices" by unions.

Chief among the Taft-Hartley reversals was the prohibition against the "closed shop." Under the prior terms of the Wagner Act, unions could negotiate a "closed shop" contract with employers. New hires would be required to join the union as a condition of their employment. And, all employees in a bargaining unit would be required to contribute to the union through a mandatory "check off" of dues from their pay envelopes. Taft-Hartley, on the other hand, empowered states to pass laws that would mitigate, or even prohibit, contracts that make union membership or the payment of dues a mandatory condition of employment.

Taft-Hartley does give states a fair bit of 'wiggle room' here. Individual states could uphold the provisions of the Wagner Act (1935), or adopt any number of alternative models permitted under the Taft-Hartley Act (1947). While "Right to Work" legislation was perhaps the most anti-union alternative permitted under Taft-Hartley, other alternatives such as the "Union Shop" (required union membership only after a period of probation) and the "Agency Shop" (required dues without required membership) were also allowed.

In addition to the American territory of Guam, twenty-two states have passed "Right to Work" legislation, reflecting a cross-pollination of freedom of association ideals with anti-union biases.

If Bill 20 passes, labour relations on Guam may gradually return to the status quo ante-Taft-Hartley. What is unusual here is that while both the Wagner Act and the Taft-Hartley Act were drafted with craft and industrial unions in mind, most of the unionized workers on the island of Guam actually work in the public sector. According to Pacific News Daily, Bill 20 would affect the following categories of workers:

  • public school teachers
  • nurses
  • school bus drivers
  • customs and quarantine officers
  • correctional officers'
  • Waterworks Authority employees
  • Port Authority employees

As a test case for labour law reform in the wake of the mortgage and credit crisis, and in the context of the current 'zeitgeist of stimulus', it will be interesting to see how this plays out in Guam.

At issue for Senator Respicio, is simply this: when employees are part of a bargaining unit, but do not contribute dues to the union, then those employees are getting a "free lunch" on the backs of co-workers who do contribute their share. Such employees, according to this argument, are benefiting from the labour movement without ever contributing to it. [In Hamilton, Ontario, we used to call them Dofasco Kids.] "Right to Work" legislation necessarily places these workers in a 'parasitical' position vis-à-vis their co-workers and the union.

On the other side of the debate rests the argument that the forced payment of union dues, or even the return of the "closed shop", implies an abridgement of fundamental American freedoms. As one commenter puts it (and many echo similar sentiments): "This issue is about freedom, and it’s just not American to force anyone to pay, join a group or union that they don’t want to."

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