Identifying the lack of a robust labor movement as one of the chief inhibitors to social justice in the United States, the leftist intellectual Noam Chomsky decried the intensifying assault on American labor as an ominous development, declaring that so-called "right to work" laws really establish a "right to scrounge."
In a Tucson appearance posted on The Nation's website today, the linguist and political philosopher lamented to interviewer John Nichols last week that while activism is flourishing in communities throughout the country, there's no cohesive movement for a more just society.
"I’ve lived in Boston since 1950, but I go to sections of Boston for talks and discover that there’s very significant activism going on in that neighborhood that people don’t know of in the next neighborhood where they’re doing some more things," the longtime Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor related.
"Part of the reason is simply the absence of a labor movement," Chomsky continued. "Throughout history, the labor movement has been — with all of its defects and deficiencies and limits — it’s been kind of a center around which things coalesce."
The United States, Chomsky told Nichols, is "a business-run society," tainted by a "very violent and repressive labor history."
That legacy reverberates today, as governors of onetime bulwarks of labor power like Wisconsin and Michigan sign "right-to-work" laws allowing workers to opt out of paying fees to support unions that bargain on their behalf. While such measures are framed in terms of workers' rights, Chomsky argued that they effectively sanction freeloading.
"‘Right to work’ means right to scrounge, " he said. "It has nothing to do with ‘right to work.’ It means the right to be represented by a union to defend you and not to pay for it."
Workers do pay a price for right-to-work laws, however. Not only do such measures reduce union coverage by nearly 10 percentage points, but the Economic Policy Institute finds that right-to-work laws are associated with an average $1,500 drop in annual wages.
As workers lose clout, Chomsky said, a well-heeled elite continues to prosper.
Bemoaning a status quo in which political elites cater to the interests of the powerful while stripping rights from ordinary citizens, Chomsky told Nichols, "This is a plutocracy. It’s not a democracy."