Labor’s Big Test

by MARK VORPAHL

For some time now, Labor has been punched into a corner when it comes to state legislation. Over the last two years legislation has been passed in Wisconsin, Indiana, Ohio, and Michigan that has attempted to gut largely public workers of their union rights.

In addition, right to work laws now exist in 23 states. These are big business’s biggest legislative weapon because they prevent Labor from bargaining contracts that require dues paying union membership for all employees at a work place. Without a united work force financially contributing to the resources of a union to defend its membership’s interests, it is left with a shoestring budget and a membership divided between dues payers and free loaders. This has resulted in a 9.4 percent decline for both organized and unorganized workers’ wages as well as declining safety and health conditions.
Union leaders have been looking for ways to put a halt to this onslaught. One example is Proposal 2, “Protect Our Jobs,” in Michigan that could become a model for future efforts nation wide.

This proposal would amend the state constitution to grant the right of public and private employees to organize and bargain collectively through labor unions. It would create a block to much of the anti-union laws that have been enacted over the last two years as well as right to work legislation. In addition, it could override current state laws that limit the ability of workers to join unions, bargain collectively, enforce collective bargaining agreements, as well as defend hours and conditions of employment from state laws that conflict with union contracts. (1)

Opponents include the Michigan Chamber of Commerce and other business groups as well as Gov. Rick Snyder and Attorney General Bill Schuette. They claim that Proposal 2 would make union leaders more powerful than elected leaders, roll back dozens of laws, and hurt their ability to get budgets under control.

Considering that Gov. Rick Synder has appointed emergency managers over several cities that have the power to gut union contracts, the charge that union leaders are making a grab for power is the same line of reasoning of any boss threatened by his subordinates when they stand up for themselves. What is bothering the opponents of Proposal 2 is that it would strengthen Labor’s defensive position against their attacks. They want a free hand in their attempts to make workers pay for the economic crisis rather than their rich contributors who are getting massive tax breaks and hoarding trillions of dollars while social programs are being slashed.

The campaign for a “yes” vote is being lead by a union/community coalition called “Protect Our Jobs.” They turned in 684,286 signatures to get it on the ballot. Only 322,609 were necessary.

Anyone who cares about workers having a voice on the job and being able to defend citizens’ interests in education, as well as public safety and services, should vote yes.

If Proposal 2 passes, it will be a victory for all Michigan workers with likely national ramifications. Eighteen states permit their constitutions to be amended through referendums. Twenty-one states allow for public votes on proposed laws. A victory for Proposal 2 would encourage unions to bypass corporate politicians and take similar legislation to the voters instead.

With 18 percent of its workforce in unions, compared to the national average of 12.1 percent, Michigan would appear to be an ideal state to launch a national campaign to protect collective bargaining. So far, however, the polls are close with 48 percent for the proposal, 43 percent opposed, and 9 percent undecided.

Why is this? Many workers do not understand what collective bargaining is and how they benefit from it even if they are not union members. They do know, on the other hand, that they need jobs, better wages and benefits, universal healthcare, improved education, and strengthened public services. If Labor were acting as a social movement and launching an independent campaign for these needs, the passage of Proposal 2 would be a more simple matter. Non-union workers would see that Labor was putting up a fight for all workers’ interests against the greed of big business and would, therefore, understand from their own experience, where to stand.

Instead the unions have, for the most part, put their resources behind getting Democrat Party politicians elected even though this party shares equal responsibility with the Republicans in presiding over workers’ declining standard of living and rights. In addition, they push cuts only budgets to Medicare, Medicaid, likely Social Security, as well as other needed public services while rewarding the corporations with trillions in bailouts, loans, and tax breaks. Consequently, for too many workers, unions are viewed as just another “special interest” lobbying machine. By focusing exclusively on collective bargaining in the vacuum of a greater social fight back, Proposal 2 leaves itself open to the judgment that Labor’s leaders are more concerned with their own positions rather than fighting to improve the conditions for all workers.

Unions also need to be willing to boldly defend their membership’s interests rather than start from a position of making concessions to the employers as is usually done these days. Unfortunately, Proposal 2 is not free from this losing approach. It states “Laws may be enacted that prohibit public employees from striking.” Why agree to disarm public employees from using their most powerful weapon? Any General who agreed to such a tactic before going into battle would rightfully be judged as incompetent. It appears that the purpose of this concession is to avoid upsetting Democrat Party politicians whose influence over the unions’ leadership is Labor’s Achilles heel.

In spite of this significant shortcoming, a victory for Proposal 2 would be an important step forward for Labor. Would it mean that the unions were turning around the one-sided class war of big business? Its victory could be a contributing factor. However, in order to reverse the direction in this country, Labor must be willing to fight for all workers’ interests with mass demonstrations and strikes over issues that effect us all against the corporate interests that dominate the Democrat and Republican Parties.

1.) Michigan “Protect Our Jobs” Amendment, Proposal 2 (2012)

Mark Vorpahl is an union steward, social justice activist, and writer for Workers’ Action – www.workerscompass.org. He can be reached at portland@workerscompass.org.

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