There’s an article in Friday’s Washington Post about the ongoing strike by Houston, Texas janitors. (The same folks who were getting trampled by police horses the other day.) Part of the article tells the story of Ercilia Sandoval, a Salvadorian immigrant who is one of the striking workers. If we take a look at her story, it becomes very easy to see who the real winners and losers are in right to work states. It should come as no surprise if I tell you that the losers outnumber the winners. It might surprise you if I tell you that you’re probably (if you live anywhere in the US) one of the losers.
Sandoval works for $5.35 an hour and has no health insurance. (It should be noted at this point that based on the 2005 federal poverty line guidelines for a family of three, simply reaching the poverty line of 16,090 at that wage level would require working 3,007.5 hours over the course of the year. It’s possible to do, of course. It just requires working for more than nine and a half hours a day, six days a week, three hundred and sixty five days a year. (We’ll ignore, for the moment, the asinine assumption that a family of three making 16,091 is doing OK.) She also has breast cancer. And no health care. That really shouldn’t be a surprise, since her $5.35 job doesn’t come with benefits, and a $5.35 job makes it hard to afford to pay for food and shelter, let alone the outrageous premiums that come with individually-bought coverage.
It can be hard, at times, to look at complicated economic issues and figure out who the winners and losers are, but this isn’t one of them. There are clear winners here, there are clear losers here, and there are a hell of a lot more losers than winners.
1: The companies that directly employ these janitors. These companies are able to pay the barest minimum in wages and offer no benefits. That’s definitely going to help their profit margin quite a bit.
2: The companies that contract with those janitorial service companies for services. The companies that are paying their workers trash to take care of the trash can offer services for a lower price while still making a good profit. This means that the companies that own the buildings are spending less to maintain their buildings, which will help their profit margins.
3: Any stockholders of companies in either of the first two groups.
1: The workers at the janitorial services companies and their families. That one should be obvious – they are working for very little money and no benefits.
2: Private social service agencies and funders. Charity doesn’t just go to people who are too lazy to work, or who can’t work. It goes to those who need the help. The below-poverty-level wages paid by these companies help maintain a large (and growing) but not well known group of people: the working poor. These are people who do work – in many cases very hard – but who are still unable to make ends meet. When things are going well, they can just keep their heads above the water, but that’s not a stable situation. They live from paycheck to paycheck, and one layoff, one hospitalization, one bad month, can leave them in desperate need of assistance. They don’t make enough money to live securely, but they typically make too much to qualify for very much in the way of government help. Instead, they often need to turn to private not for profits for help.
3: Emergency rooms. People with no health insurance still need care. Since they can’t afford insurance, and often can’t afford to visit a doctor’s office, the uninsured often go to the ER for things that really aren’t emergencies. That’s because federal law mandates that ERs provide care to those who may not be able to pay. This results in overcrowded ERs, long waits for care, and in patients being diverted to other facilities. The bills that these uninsured patients incur often go unpaid.
4: The insured. Health care costs are high in part because hospitals need to cover the costs that they incur providing the ER care I just mentioned above. The higher health care costs are reflected in the rest of our insurance premiums.
5: The taxpayer. Once medical bills get high enough, as they have in Ms. Sandoval’s case, the uninsured can qualify for Medicaid. That money comes from both the state and federal governments, and ultimately from the taxpayers.
What does this have to do with right-to-work?
In “right-to-work” states, the law mandates that employees cannot be forced to join, or to pay money to, a union as a condition of employment. Federal law, however, mandates that if a union is present in the workplace, it must represent all employees regardless of whether they belong to the union. This means that an employee who refuses to pay dues to a union will still receive union wages, job protection, etc. This, in turn, obviously removes any financial incentive for employees to join the union. That results in severely weakened unions and in more and more non-union workplaces.
It should come as no surprise, then, that in right-to-work states, like Texas, wages are significantly lower. It should also come as no surprise that Texas has the highest percentage of uninsured people in the nation. Individual workers are more or less at the mercy of the employer – the amount of influence that a worker has depends on how necessary they are and how easy they would be to replace. Workers who band together to work as a group – workers who unionize – have more influence over their employer, in large part because they make it difficult for employers to treat individual employees as disposable, replacable parts.
Look, I might be a pinko liberal/progressive, but that’s not because I’m motivated by ideology. This is pure pragmatism, nothing more, nothing less. Right-to-work, and other similar economic policies, hurt far more people than they help. That’s why they are bad, and that’s why efforts to fight them, like the one being undertaken by the janitors in Houston, are so necessary.