Michigan’s Right to Work Law: battle lines, strategy, tactics

Law rammed through as protesters pepper sprayed

Protester arrested at Michigan capitol, Lansing, Dec. 6

Update: Following the publication of this article on Dec. 9, the Michigan House of Representatives voted on Dec. 11 to approve anti-union legislation while 15,000 workers and their allies demonstrated in protest. The anti-union measures had already been passed by the Michigan Senate, and Gov. Rick Snyder has indicated he will sign them into law.

Michigan legislators rammed through “Right to Work” legislation in less than seven hours on Dec. 6. To get the job done, police closed the capitol building to thousands of union protesters and pepper sprayed or tear gassed union activists. Later a judge ruled that the police had done just what they should. This is what capitalist democracy looks like when critical issues are at stake for the ruling class and people are in motion.

Right to Work: a blow to labor

“Right to Work” legislation is a deceptive term because it has nothing to do with the demand for jobs. Such laws do not guarantee any rights; in fact they limit rights. They make it illegal to bargain what are called union security agreements, a common feature of contracts for about the last 80 years.

A more accurate term would be “Right to Work for Less.”

Right to Work laws weaken the voice for better wages and benefits by making it illegal to require all who benefit from a contract to pay dues or to bargain a contract clause requiring everyone to pay dues to cover the cost of bargaining and enforcing the contract that they benefit from. That weakens the organization.

Wages are lower in Right to Work states. An average worker in a Right to Work state earns about $7,131 a year less than workers in states where unions are free to bargain over union security. Right to Work states also have higher poverty rates. According to calculations from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the rate of workplace deaths is 41 percent higher in states with Right to Work laws, a reflection of a union voice that is weaker.

The anti-union forces behind the legislation

Among those driving this bill through the Michigan House and Senate were Sen. Arlan Meekhoff, Rep. Tom McMillin, and Rep. Pete Lund, all of whom are members of American Legislative Exchange Council. ALEC helped drive the union-killing events in Wisconsin and is funded by the Koch brothers.

However, it is not just ALEC members who voted for this legislation in Michigan and Indiana (or earlier in New Hampshire). Many ruling class entities are pushing this program.

Sheldon Adelson (whose net worth is $21.5 billion) told the Wall Street Journal in an interview published Dec. 4 that he was not giving up after spending $100 million to defeat President Obama. He said that he was going to refocus his financial and political guns on labor. His strategy now is to stop or weaken a union’s ability to bargain contracts at the state level.

Adelson calls himself a “social liberal.” He owns casinos around the world, and his flagship, the Venetian, is one of the biggest non-union casinos in Las Vegas. The only reason that it continues to be non-union is that management uses vicious and illegal anti-union methods to stop workers from organizing.

He wants what the ruling class wants in general: a union-free playing field where they can drive down wages and rights to a level where people can just barely live.

Captured in that strategy is the reason why those with and without a union should support the fight in Michigan. If the Kochs and their ilk get their way with a Right to Work law in the heart of union territory, everyone who wants to win decent wages, benefits and rights will be that much further away from their goal.

Democrats and Republicans attacking labor

Michigan has been an established power house of union strength for decades. But labor has been undermined by auto factories moving production abroad and cutting jobs, wages and benefits at home. Concessions by labor have only been seen as weakness and have led to more demands for more concessions.

The one remaining union power in the Midwest, or certainly the biggest union power, is that in the public sector. And within the Midwest there is no greater strength than AFSCME in Illinois. AFSCME represents over 40,000 state workers and tens of thousands of local government and non-profit workers. While the anti-labor attacks in Wisconsin, Ohio, Indiana and Michigan have been initiated by Republicans, in Illinois the attacks are orchestrated by the Democratic Party. The governor and the leaders of the House and Senate are all Democrats, and they are all pushing an anti-labor agenda.

Illinois Governor Quinn is the chair of the Democratic Governor’s Association Labor Committee. He views himself as a populist. But this “populist” is attacking labor in ways that even Gov. Walker in Wisconsin never did. Unlike Walker, he has refused to pay raises in the existing contract (5.25 percent from a four-year contract that expired June 30). Like Walker, he insisted that collective bargaining rights be taken from thousands of state workers who already have them. Like Walker, he has attacked pensions for state workers, cutting pension rights for new employees two years ago and trying to cut them for everyone else now.

While the contract for state employees expired in June, bargaining has continued. For the first time ever in Illinois, the governor unilaterally terminated the contract, which had been extended in June, even while bargaining continued. It was a sign of war. Moreover, his negotiators are clearly driving to a point where they can declare impasse and impose terms that will slash incomes. Retirees may have to pay up to 25 percent of their very meager pensions for health care. He has similar plans to drive down the standard of living of current employees. This struggle will come to a head in the coming weeks.

Labor’s next step

How will labor respond to the challenge in Michigan? Over the weekend, hundreds of union members crammed into union halls expressing a desire to fight back.

Demonstrations are planned for the next few days, which will coincide with the next votes on Right to Work. The two versions of the bill have to be reconciled before passage, and the earliest that they can vote is Dec. 11.

Some unions are talking about civil disobedience. Certainly an action that surrounds the capitol and prevents business as usual would be a welcome development—potentially stopping the ability of the right-wing to pass the law.

However, the real power of labor is the ability to stop everything—not just traffic on a particular street. While police may be able to clear a street of protesters, they cannot replace the workers in offices, stores, restaurants and factories. Organizing a general strike by all of labor is a tactic that is on par with the attack that is designed to strangle labor. The movement created by a general strike would draw a line in the sand on behalf of every employed and unemployed worker across the country who is sick of the race to the bottom, sick of the demands for concessions, sick of low wages and few benefits.

Over the last year, Michigan workers have gathered hundreds of thousands of signatures to get initiatives on the ballot only to find that the legislative and electoral arenas are dominated by and manipulated by the rich and powerful. Now is the time for tactics that use our strength in an arena where we are the ones who dominate—that is at every worksite.

The roots of the Right to Work battle: 1947 and 2012

Today’s Right to Work laws are founded on the 1947 Taft-Hartley Act. It was passed at a time when millions of workers were striking for a living wage, and for new rights to employer-paid health insurance and pensions. They were striking for justice on the job.

Bankers and businessmen saw the rising tide of worker rebellions as a struggle for power on the job, so they came up with a law that was designed to weaken unions. By taking the financial/organizational muscle out of the union, Taft-Hartley made it illegal to require everyone who benefits from union contracts to pay dues.

That was just one aspect of the law. Others included the creation of new ways for corporations and others to sue unions while at the same time banning union solidarity actions such as secondary strikes and boycotts (actions by workers not directly affected by a contract). The law banned closed shops where all workers in a union shop must belong to the union as a condition of employment.

All of those Taft-Hartley restrictions affected the financial strength of the union and their strategy and tactics. But another aspect of the law aimed directly at the heart of the union. The law required that union leaders take an oath supporting the very government that was undermining the unions. The law specifically banned communists, who had given leadership, vision and life to the labor movement, from playing a role. Combined with the McCarthy witch hunt, communists were hounded out of the labor movement by way of both hearings and neo-fascist violence.

Sixty-five years later, the effects of that 1947 law and the reactionary period that followed can still be seen in the weakness of labor. Waves of state repression, contracting out, plant closings and so on have added layers of weight that shape the state of the labor movement.

But the situation is not all doom and gloom. Labor today is not the same as it was in 1947. The working class is filled with the vitality of millions more African American, Latino, Asian and other workers of color. The willingness to act has been demonstrated by the general strike of Latino workers in 2006 and the Chicago teachers' strike of 2012. The many divisions that separate workers are still there, but the potential for what can be done is infinitely greater than it was in 1947.

More than anything the ranks want a solution.

What is needed in 2012 is a leadership that will act.

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