ND one of 24 states with right-to-work law as debate heats up in Wisconsin
MOORHEAD - How much does it affect a business to straddle two states, one of which is a right-to-work state? Turns out, not that much. At American Crystal Sugar, headquartered here but with employees also in North Dakota, all workers are affected...
MOORHEAD – How much does it affect a business to straddle two states, one of which is a right-to-work state? Turns out, not that much.
At American Crystal Sugar, headquartered here but with employees also in North Dakota, all workers are affected by the company’s collective bargaining agreement with the Bakery, Confectionery, Tobacco Workers and Grain Millers’ union.
“If you are a sugar boiler in Moorhead, Minnesota, or a sugar boiler in Hillsboro, North Dakota, that master agreement dictates what your hourly rate is going to be,” said Lisa Borgen, vice president of administration.
The difference in North Dakota is that workers aren’t compelled to join or pay union dues when working under union-negotiated contracts.
Right to work is a hotly debated issue right now in Wisconsin, where the Republican-majority Assembly is expected to pass a bill that’s already been approved by the state Senate. Gov. Scott Walker could sign that bill into law as soon as Monday.
North Dakota has had a so-called right-to-work law since the 1940s, and today there are 24 states with similar laws on the books. Minnesota is not one of them.
That could become a challenge for Minnesota, said Andy Peterson, president and CEO of the Greater North Dakota Chamber. If Wisconsin passes its bill, Minnesota would be surrounded by right-to-work states, where employers don’t have to contend with as many, or as powerful, unions.
“Flexibility allows a company to be cheaper, faster and better, and you don’t get flexibility in the states that are not right-to-work, not nearly as much flexibility,” he said.
Proponents, such as Peterson, say right to work is good for businesses and for workers’ wallets, because they don’t have to pay union dues.
Opponents say such laws weaken unions, which in turn can make life harder for workers.
“If (unions) are going to need to represent people, they would like them to contribute financially,” said Charles Stevens, a professor of management at North Dakota State University and an expert in labor-management relations. “That kind of protects the union as an institution.”
A faulty phrase
Many take issue with the phrase “right to work,” calling it a misnomer.
Borgen said the term “presupposes that maybe a company won’t give a person a job because of their choice to be either in or out of the union, and that’s not what it’s all about.
“What right to work means is, if I go into a place that has a union and I choose to either join or not join the union, neither the employer nor the union can retaliate or do anything against me for my choice,” she said.
In one presentation on the website of teachers and public workers’ union North Dakota United, the law is referred to as “your right to be a freeloader,” because workers can benefit without paying dues.
“The union is there whether people choose to join it or not,” Borgen said. “Either way, the company has to treat all of the employees as if they chose to join.”
Another misconception, Stevens said, is mixing up right to work with a separate North Dakota law that allows employers to fire workers without cause.
“You listen to talk radio or anything in the media, and you’ll hear people throw out that North Dakota’s a right-to-work state, but they’re applying that meaning when they’re really talking about employment at will,” he said.
A broad reach
In addition to not requiring workers to join unions, North Dakota does not allow public employees to collectively bargain.
“We have no say, I have no say,” said Grant Benjamin, president of the North Dakota State Lodge of the Fraternal Order of Police. “I can ask for stuff. We can ask for more money or anything like that, but they can say ‘No, this is all you’re going to get. Thank you very much,’ and you’re done.”
Benjamin, a former Fargo police officer, said the city tries to “make it right” by comparing salaries to those of similarly sized cities, where police have collective bargaining.
But North Dakota police lack the protections that other forces, such in Minnesota, have regarding discipline and benefits.
“I would prefer to have the ability to negotiate and get some protection or some rights for the officers,” he said.