The making of a Right to Work state

Posted: 13 December 2012 in Uncategorized
Tags: , , , , , , , , , ,

KochBrothersSnyder

Mainstream economists, to judge by the blogs and columns I’ve been looking at in recent days, don’t seem to have much to say about the recent decision to make Michigan a Right to Work state.

But it’s a momentous decision, at this particular economic and political juncture—in the midst of the Second Great Depression and after Obama’s re-election.

Reuters explains how the decision had been in the works since March 2011 and how the unions were outmaneuvered by right-wing forces at both the national and state level.

From outside Michigan Republican circles, it appeared that the Republican drive to weaken unions came out of the blue – proposed, passed and signed in a mere six days.

But the transformation had been in the making since March 2011 when [Republican State Senator Patrick] Colbeck and a fellow freshman, state Representative Mike Shirkey, first seriously considered legislation to ban mandatory collection of union dues as a condition of employment in Michigan. Such was their zeal, they even went to union halls to make their pitch and were treated “respectfully,” Colbeck said.

The upstarts were flirting with the once unthinkable, limiting union rights in a state that is the home of the heavily unionized U.S. auto industry and the birthplace of the nation’s richest union, the United Auto Workers. For many Americans, Michigan is the state that defines organized labor.

But in a convergence of methodical planning and patient alliance building – the “systematic approach” – the reformers were on a roll, one that establishment Michigan Republicans came to embrace and promised to bankroll.

Republicans executed a plan – the timing, the language of the bills, the media strategy, and perhaps most importantly, the behind-the-scenes lobbying of top Republicans including Snyder. . .

From outside Michigan Republican circles, it appeared that the Republican drive to weaken unions came out of the blue – proposed, passed and signed in a mere six days.

But the transformation had been in the making since March 2011 when [Republican State Senator Patrick] Colbeck and a fellow freshman, state Representative Mike Shirkey, first seriously considered legislation to ban mandatory collection of union dues as a condition of employment in Michigan. Such was their zeal, they even went to union halls to make their pitch and were treated “respectfully,” Colbeck said.

The upstarts were flirting with the once unthinkable, limiting union rights in a state that is the home of the heavily unionized U.S. auto industry and the birthplace of the nation’s richest union, the United Auto Workers. For many Americans, Michigan is the state that defines organized labor.

But in a convergence of methodical planning and patient alliance building – the “systematic approach” – the reformers were on a roll, one that establishment Michigan Republicans came to embrace and promised to bankroll.

Republicans executed a plan – the timing, the language of the bills, the media strategy, and perhaps most importantly, the behind-the-scenes lobbying of top Republicans including Snyder.

One of the big questions, in Michigan as well as in Wisconsin and Indiana, is: did the union movement get outmaneuvered or were they simply defeated by overwelling financial and political forces?

Another significant question is, what does this mean in terms of both the history and future of unionism in the United States?

Nelson Lichtenstein explains, in an interview with Brad Plumer, that the history of Right to Work legislation goes back to the nineteenth century.

Brad Plumer: Where did these “right-to-work” laws come from? And when did conservatives start using them in order to weaken labor unions? Walk me through the history here.

Nelson Lichtenstein: Go back to the 1930s, when the Wagner Act was created to allow the government to certify voluntary unions as the exclusive bargaining agent for a workplace. There was one thing the Wagner Act didn’t say anything about. If you’re the exclusive representation in a workplace, what about workers who don’t want to join? And employers could be quite clever in winning workers away from the union.

So John L. Lewis and other unionists said we need to have a union shop. The employer hires the worker, and after they get the job, they have to join the union. (This was different from the closed shop, where if you want a job, you go to the union first.) Companies resisted this idea bitterly. But then World War II comes along. Unions are going to be patriotic, accept a no-strike pledge, let the government set wage levels. And in return, the government said, okay, we’ll give you the union shop. And union membership went up by millions of workers.

But at this very moment, conservatives were already mobilizing against the New Deal and unions. They were saying, we want to pass laws that will make a collective bargaining contract illegal if joining a union becomes a condition of employment.

BP: So already in the 1940s you’re seeing a right-to-work movement form—conservatives want rules that forbid employers and unions from agreeing to a union shop arrangement. 

NL: Right, the language on this goes all the way back to the 19th century. The guy who invented the term “right-to-work,” I think that was invented in the Progressive Era. What’s remarkable is that anti-union discourse hasn’t changed over the years. It doesn’t matter whether unions are weak or strong. The talk is always about union bosses, about coercion, about how there should be freedom in the workplace.

Clearly, unions and their supporters need to fight back but they’re not getting a lot of support from their political allies.

BP: So unions don’t really have a good response to this state-level opposition?

NL: Unions will have to defend themselves. But here’s a question. There have been hundreds of thousands of people flocking to Madison, Wisconsin, or Lansing to fight over this. The meaning of solidarity’s what’s at stake here. It approaches the sacred. But we don’t hear that. The language of union leaders is that they’re defending the middle class. But it’s more than that. Workers are defending a concept, a sentiment, and a fundamental moral value. . .

BP: And it doesn’t look like very many national Democrats are willing to fight hard for unions anymore.

NL: No, and here I’d add a criticism of Obama. The Obama campaign made a strategic decision that it wanted to win in non-union North Carolina, in non-union Virginia. So Obama didn’t fly into Madison, Wisconsin during the recall of [Gov. Scott] Walker. Obama’s campaign was not a referendum of unionism.

And I’d add a larger meta-historical point. This is the experiment America’s now having. Obama has just won re-election. A liberal president is popular. But juxtapose that with what just happened in Michigan. So the question is, can you have a liberal, progressive America without unions? History says no.

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Comments
  1. [...] I think that the so-called “Right to Work” legislation should absolutely be passed everywhere. People should have the right to choose [...]

  2. Christian says:

    Clarissa, there is no requirement, by law, to join a union, so opting out of paying dues is a way to destroy membership.

    Anyway, Prof Ruccio, I’m a Flint native -now econ PhD student- how did worker cooperatives like King Arthur become cooperatives? I think the UAW needs to metaphorically punch the capitalist class in the mouth and takeover/buy out the big three. Do you even think something like that could happen? Would the UAW really want to democratically decide what, how, where, and why it produces things?

  3. David F. Ruccio says:

    Christian,

    I don’t know all the history of King Arthur Flour. From what I understand, the previous owners decided, sometime in the mid-1990s, to establish an Employee Stock-Ownership Plan and to sell all shares in the company to the workers. Today, it is a 100 percent worker-owned company.

    As for the UAW, I don’t know. What I do know, as I wrote back in 2009, is that the United Steelworkers signed a framework agreement for collaboration in establishing Mondragón cooperatives in the manufacturing sector within the United States and Canada. So, there is hope.

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