Saturday, December 8, 2012

Right-to-Work and The Free Agent Worker

Twenty three right-to-work states
This week Michigan legislators voted to make their state the 24th right-to-work state (RTW) in the US. The matter now heads to the governor possibly as early as next week.

The number of RTW states is approaching the 50 % mark - this is significant and another reminder that the winds of free agency for most American workers continue to gain strength.

There's an economic paradigm shift underway in the US. Basic assumptions about standard of living, fair wages, cost of living, and the condition of the middle class are under siege. These issues have already been settled in the south and interior west where there's a history of anti-union, conservative, libertarian sentiment. The fight going forward will take place in the Northeast, Midwest and Far West. Michigan and Indiana (the 23rd state to become RTW) lie in Rust Belt country. Their membership in the ranks of RTW states is a very big deal.

Yet state by state legislative wrangling over RTW is a slow read. Clearly average Americans would rather watch reality TV than consider anything remotely connected to the Taft-Hartley Act. And who can blame us, talk about boring and detail infested. Nope, it's Duck Dynasty, Real Housewives of Wherever, Breaking Amish, and Here Comes Honey Boo Boo. Compelling stuff to the last snarl and tear.

Furthermore it's the big stories that suck up the oxygen, like the dockworkers strike in LA and Long Beach. In spite of (perhaps because of) the firm grip the strikers had on an economic jugular, it didn't last long. The strike sent up all sorts of flags and messages, not the least being that clerical workers make over $40/hr with benefits and retirement that rival the US Senate.

Chinese Container Port
I know, I know, these issues are complicated. No doubt. But imagine how this plays to a newly free agent-ized American worker now searching for a job? Furthermore compare this rate of pay to that of a counterpart in the Chinese ports of Dalian, Shanghai, Xiamen, or Qingdao - where at most their $2/hr represents 20 times less?

High profile strike events tell part of the story but certainly not all of it. Something much more sweeping and profound is what's happening in Michigan and Indiana. In states that have passed RTW legislation wages and benefits for all workers (non-union and union alike) are lower than national averages. Clearly the presence of unions and the threat of union activity can be a plus for worker wages and benefits as well as safety issues and general quality of life.

It's likely more states will pass RTW laws. Without the presence of unionized labor or credible threat of organizing, employers can't be expected to champion labor related issues. Why would they? The laws of the marketplace preclude it. The inevitable result for workers will be less group and more individual identification. In other words, the need for workers to have to fend for themselves becomes ever greater. The free agent-izing of the American worker is under way and it is here to stay.

In the end we are all independent Free Agents, it's just that many of us haven't awakened. As more states go the RTW route there will be plenty of opportunity for wake-up calls. In the meantime, no need to wait until you smell the coffee. Accept the fact that you are the captain of your own ship, maneuvering the marketplace waters of free agency. But don't expect anyone to hand you the navigation charts. You'll have to get up and get them yourself.

Actually, I'd recommend you learn how to draw your own charts.

Travel well.
John Jeffrey Lundell

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