Back when I was a young state senator in Oklahoma, I voted nine times against so-called “right-to-work” legislation because it had been proven not to aid in economic development and only served to keep wages low and stagnant.
I was right on this for Oklahoma then, and I’m right on it for New Mexico now.
Later, at the time of the terrible urban riots of 1967, I was a U.S. Senator from Oklahoma and was named to President Lyndon Johnson’s National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders, the Kerner Commission, created partly at my suggestion.
In regard to the intertwined problems of race and poverty, the commission concluded that America was moving toward two societies, separate and unequal. Since then, our country has made strides toward knocking down barriers to racial and ethnic equality, but we’ve fallen farther into the trap of worsening income inequality.
When I ran for president of the United States in 1976, I always said exactly what I believed. Our basic campaign theme was “The Issue is Privilege.” Our most popular campaign button said: “Take the Rich Off Welfare.”
I talked about how the gross and increasing inequality of income in America was our basic problem.
I said then, and continue to believe now, that because of tax loopholes, for example, and government programs and subsidies that redistribute income in the wrong direction, too few people have most of the money and power in this country, and the rest have little or none.
There is no dispute that “right-to-work” and other anti-union measures have made it increasingly hard for workers to form and maintain their own labor unions. And studies show that it is equally clear that the rate of the steep decline in union membership in America correlates almost exactly with the similarly steep increase in income inequality in our country.
“Right-to-work” laws help to concentrate wealth and income at the top. They put states on a course that diminishes working people’s wages and reduces the benefits they count on to improve their families’ quality of life.
It’s no surprise that the primary funders and supporters of such legislation are either creatures of the 1 percent or have political careers dependent on staying in their favor. It is they and they alone who stand to profit in the short run as labor costs fall and CEO salaries soar.
Pushing “right-to-work” laws is a short-sighted strategy. You can’t hollow out your foundation and not expect the floor to eventually cave in.
Childhood poverty in New Mexico is already at 34 percent. That’s not the kind of statistic that should inspire lawmakers to make huge gambles on laws proven to lower families’ take-home pay.
I moved to New Mexico in 1976, after I left Washington, because I believe it is the best place in the world to live – and I mean that. Like most other New Mexicans, I also believe that we are all in this thing together and that “everybody does better when everybody does better.”
So, we don’t need a “right-to-work” law in New Mexico that will only benefit the few at the expense of the many.
Former U. S. Sen. Fred Harris, D-Okla., is professor emeritus of political science at the University of New Mexico.
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