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Defeating “Right-to-Work”


The passage in Michigan of the anti-worker legislation grotesquely misnamed “Right to Work” (RTW) should be putting the entire nation on red alert. The downward pressure on the standard of living such bills unleash on the vast majority extend well beyond the union ranks. The bill’s success in Michigan, a pivotal state for organized Labor, indicates the unfolding of a national campaign by RTW’s backers.

Like the looming cuts to Medicare, Social Security, and other necessary social programs targeted by a bi-partisan Grand Bargain, this RTW campaign demonstrates that all expectations workers have held in regards to maintaining “the American way of life” are under attack by the big business powers behind our political system. Unless we are prepared to unite and fight these efforts by any means necessary, the lives of future generations will be rendered short and mean for the sake of corporate profit.

The mettle for this fight was abundantly evident at Michigan’s state capital in Lansing on the day the RTW was passed. Up to 1,200 gathered to have their opposition heard. They were greeted with pepper spray by the police and arrogant indifference by RTW’s backers. This was endured by the protesters in spite of the fact that the passage of the bill was largely viewed as inevitable. The determination to turn around the one-sided class war against RTW’s supporters exists. What is necessary is the political perspective and strategies to win.

RTW’s Results

While labor law necessitates that unions represent all workers under their jurisdiction, RTW laws mean that workers at the workplace where a union exists are not required to join the union and therefore are not required to pay dues, meaning that the union has less money to finance its campaigns. Nevertheless, when the union negotiates a contract at this workplace, those who are not in the union benefit from it just as much as those who are in the union. As a result, the union is divided into “dues payers” and “free loaders,” weakening their ability to take united action in their own interests. Union organizing becomes focused more on overcoming this division rather than advancing collective strength.

Consequently, the downward pressure results not only for union workers’ wages and rights, but also non-union workers as well. The Economic Policy Institute has reported that employees in RTW states earn $1,500 less annually. This does not include the erosion of benefits, rights, and safety standards.

In regards to the significance of RTW being approved in Michigan, Brad Plumer of the Washington Post wrote:

“The right-to-work bill in Michigan is also an indicator of a broader trend in the United States. As Rich Yeselson details, Michigan is one of the most heavily unionized states in the country, with 17.5 percent of workers belonging to a union. The United Autoworkers is one of the most storied unions in the country. If Michigan, of all places, is no longer safe from sweeping revisions to its labor laws, then none of the remaining pro-union states in the Midwest and Northeast are immune.

“In a country where the strength of organized labor has already been dwindling for decades, that’s a major change.”

Corporate Extremism

Given the extremist corporate agenda behind RTW in Michigan, it is no wonder why it was signed so quickly without a single public hearing in a lame duck session. It took a sucker punch to get it passed. Any show of a genuinely democratic process would allow for its likely defeat. It is for this reason that Michigan’s RTW also had a $1 million appropriation attached to it. State law prevents the repeal of spending bills through a popular vote.

Who are the forces behind Michigan’s RTW? United Auto Workers President Bob King has said that the Koch brothers and Amway owner Dick Devos “bullied and bought their way to get this legislation in Michigan.” While the exact behind the curtain schemes may never be known, there can be little doubt that King is correct. The Koch brothers and Devos are major political players for the 1%, and it is only the 1% who benefit from RTW.

This elite claims that RTW encourages business growth in the states it is enacted. While the evidence for this is dubious, to say the least, RTW will result in higher profits and lower wages because business owners will more easily be able to pay their workers less in the absence of a strong union that could push against increased exploitation.

This situation is hardly a recipe for economic recovery. Seventy percent of the U.S. economy depends on domestic consumption. If workers are less able to afford the goods and services created for this consumption, in part, because of RTW laws, the economy will contract rather than expand. This suits the 1% fine since they maintain their wealth and increase their power over the political system. For workers it is a race to the bottom.

Given this, and that Michigan’s RTW passage will likely be attempted in other states, it is necessary to prepare in advance to combat such measures.

Fighting Back

In Michigan, there is talk of recall efforts aimed at those who voted for RTW as well as defeating Governor Synder in 2014. Similar efforts in Wisconsin failed to reverse Governor Walker’s attacks on public workers’ wages, benefits, and collective bargaining rights. The strategy contributed to derailing a social movement and knocking the wind out of it once the votes were counted. These results were largely because Walker’s Democrat opponent, Tom Barrett, agreed with the Governor that the state’s budget needed to be balanced at public workers’ expense — he only disagreed with eliminating collective bargaining. This difference was not enough to convince Wisconsin voters to dump the devil they knew for another.

In Michigan, as long as efforts to reverse RTW are focused on supporting corporate Democrat Party politicians, the same fate is inevitable. A different source of power must be put into play other than the ability to turn out votes.

A strategy to reverse RTW in Michigan, and prevent anti-worker laws in other states must be based on politically independent mass action. That is, they must aim to build the largest possible demonstrations, occupations, and, if need be, strikes. If the policies of a government attack the well-being of workers and their communities, then these workers must, in an organized and strategic way, prove themselves to be ungovernable until these policies are sent to the shredder. Unions are the only existing organizations that have the institutional capacity to act in the interests of all workers and lead such struggles.

Acts of civil disobedience that involve only a few hundred will not challenge the economic elite and their political policies by themselves, even if led by the unions. Such acts are easily contained by the cops and courts, and can, consequently, result in demoralization. Rather than being side-tracked by such tactics, Labor must seek to educate and mobilize its own membership, in alliance with other grass roots organizations, on the issues that affect all workers. That is, Labor must spare no costs in building an independent social movement by mobilizing tens of thousands to get out into the streets.

Like the RTW, the looming Grand Bargain cuts to Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security, unemployment insurance, food stamps, and other public programs seeks to make workers pay for the failures of a system geared towards huge profits for the 1%. If Labor’s leadership was aiming to mobilize millions of working people against these cuts, it would be better prepared to defeat RTW in Michigan and elsewhere. That is because such an effort would create an active national network that could spring into action the moment Governor Synder announced his willingness to sign onto RTW.

The future is at stake to a degree perhaps never seen before in the U.S. The boldness of our campaigns need to match this challenge.

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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