Losing Michigan


When you examine the history of organized labor—the birth, growth, trajectory—you have to be shocked and mortified by what just happened to the great state of Michigan.  They went from being one of the strongest, most celebrated union bastions in the country (the UAW was formed in 1935, the same year the Wagner Act became law) to becoming the 24th right-to-work state.

For those unfamiliar with what a “right-to-work” (I hate that godawful slogan) state is, it’s a state where you don’t have to join the union or pay union dues as a condition of employment.  By contrast, a union shop (or, in some configurations, an “agency shop”) is a facility where you are required to become a union member as soon as you hire in.

In the wake of this Michigan debacle, the media have been referring to union shops as “closed shops,” which is incorrect.  The closed shop (which required that new employees already belonged to a union, any union, even before being hired in) has been illegal for decades.  It was outlawed by the Taft-Hartley Act (1947).

One of the horrendously unfair things about a right-to-work state is that it allows non-union employees to get a free ride.  As everyone knows, union wages and benefits are, across-the-board, roughly 15-percent better than non-union wages and benefits.  Plus, union facilities, by and large, have better safety records than non-union facilities.  That’s because safety rules and department safety committees are written into union contracts.

Incredibly, employees who work in a union facility within a right-to-work state, but who selfishly refuse to join the union, still get to enjoy the valuable perks of a union contract.  It’s true.  They get to work in a clean, safe environment, and they get to enjoy those 15-percent higher wages and those 15-percent better benefits that the union bargaining board sweated blood to negotiate for them.  They get to wallow in all these benefits despite not having the integrity or moral courage to join the union.

Not only that, but these people get to file grievances, just like regular union members, which seems utterly ridiculous.  It’s like an atheist going to the Catholic Church and demanding to be canonized.  In fact, the only things these freeloaders give up is not being allowed to run for union office or vote in union elections.  Big whoop-dee-do.  How many union members run for office anyway?

What should labor’s response be to the Michigan reversal?  Should we react hysterically?  Should we treat this unfortunate but isolated event as a precursor to the inevitable apocalypse that awaits us?  Or should we take a deep breath and calmly assess the actual damage?  My personal suggestion is that we react hysterically.

This Michigan deal is bad.  It could prove to be as big a blow to organized labor as Ronald Reagan’s 1981 firing of the air-traffic controllers.  Let’s not forget that, corny as it sounds, perception is everything, and when Reagan fired those PATCO guys, he single-handedly altered the perception of union strength in America.

By firing en masse the entire air-traffic union, Reagan changed everything.  He showed America’s corporations that when you have the guts and confidence to stand up to union leadership, you have a good chance of winning.  Indeed, that was Reagan’s legacy on how to handle organized labor.  You attack it.  And we all know what happened to the economic landscape as a result of that change in perception..

The same could be true of the Michigan fallout.  If union-heavy Michigan could metastasize into a right-to-work state, it means that every single state in the union could, hypothetically, do the same.  All they would need is a Republican state assembly, a Republican state senate, and a Republican governor willing to sign the bill.

There’s a lesson here, and it’s one the ideologues will find hard to accept.  That lesson is to vote Democrat.  Say what you will about the Democratic Party being the “lesser of two evils,” of it being wishy-washy, of it being gutless, of there being “no real difference” between the two parties, etc.  All of that, within obvious limits, is absolutely true.

But the rhetoric doesn’t change the political realties.  Question:  How many states with Democratic assemblies, Democratic senates, and Democratic governors have ever voted to become right-to-work states?  Answer:  None.

David Macaray, a Los Angeles playwright and author (“It’s Never Been Easy:  Essays on Modern Labor,” 2nd Edition), was a former union rep.  He can be reached at dmacaray@earthlink.net 

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