Michigan becomes a so called “right-to-work” state

HTC — January 06, 2013

"In our glorious fight for civil rights, we must guard against being fooled by false slogans, such as 'right to work.' It is a law to rob us of our civil rights and job rights. Its purpose is to destroy labor unions and the freedom of collective bargaining by which unions have improved wages and working conditions of everyone. Wherever these laws have been passed, wages are lower, job opportunities are fewer and there are no civil rights. We do not intend to let them do this to us. We demand this fraud be stopped. Our weapon is our vote." - Martin Luther King, speaking about right-to-work laws in1961.

Michigan, a state with 671,000 union members, became the 24th "right-to-work" state in the country when Rick Snyder signed two "right-to-work" bills into law at 5:19 pm and 5:21 pm on Tuesday, December 11, 2012. Michigan Republican State Representatives and Senators, with Gov. Snyder's approval, quickly pushed these bills through a lame-duck session of the legislature before their State House Republican majority weakens in January when they will lose five Republican members who were voted out in November's election or have reached the end of their term limits. SB 116, making Michigan a "right-to-work" state for private workers, and HB 4003, making Michigan a right to work state for public workers, both passed in the State Senate on Thursday, December 6th and in the State House of Representatives on Tuesday, December 11 at which point they were signed into law by Gov. Snyder almost immediately.

These bills have both been strategically designated as appropriations bills, making it more difficult, but not impossible to put up to a public vote. Michigan becoming a right-to-work state is particularly shocking because Michigan is the birthplace of the United Auto Workers and a traditional labor stronghold with hundreds of thousands of politically active Union members who were recently instrumental in the reelection of Barack Obama. Tens of thousands of union members protested in front of the Michigan statehouse on Thursday and Tuesday as the votes were occurring inside. Union members and activists are continuing to organize efforts to overturn these laws as quickly as possible.

What is Right-to-Work? Why does this fight matter?

"Right-to-work" in Michigan has been called by Republicans a "workplace freedom" or "freedom to choose" law when in reality its outcome has little to do with the rights or well being of working people. Republicans and other far-right anti-worker political forces designed this push for so called "right-to-work" in order to weaken unions, some of the few remaining organizations with enough power to defend the rights of working people in this country. Michigan becoming a so called "right-to-work" state is comparable in magnitude and historical importance to Reagan firing 11,345 striking air-traffic controllers in 1981. These "right-to-work" laws represent not only an attack on unions but also an attack on the wages, benefits, and working conditions of all workers in Michigan. Snyder and other Michigan Republicans declare explicitly that the purpose of the "right-to-work" laws is to make Michigan more competitive by which they mean to lower wages and benefits for all Michigan workers.

"Right-to-work" is a euphemistic name for starving unions of their financial lifeblood: dues. By banning any collective bargaining agreement from containing a clause requiring union workers to pay dues, this "right to work" law will divert union resources from important work like contract enforcement, contract negotiation, new union organizing, and political organizing to the task of dues collection. Each union member who uses this new so-called "right" to stop paying his share of dues is making a decision to further weaken his union and free-load off the same contracts, benefits, and contract enforcement their hard-working-dues-paying coworkers fund. Because unions are legally required, even in "Right-to-Work" states, to represent all members equally, free-loading, non-dues paying unionized workers receive the same benefits and services as their dues-paying coworkers. "Imagine if the government said Con Ed had an obligation to provide electricity to everyone in New York State but the customers had the right to decide whether or not to pay for it." Explained HTC President Jim Donovan, "That's exactly the scenario these 'right-to-work' laws introduce."

Furthermore, because of the logistics of dues remittance, a process for a direct and hassle-free payment of dues that operates much like the common direct deposit, employers in right to work states are fully aware of which workers do and don't pay dues. As some of their free-loading coworkers stop paying dues, dues-paying workers, who are reliant on their job and therefore eager to stay on their boss's good side, will be under increasing pressure, direct or indirect, to stop paying their union dues. Finally, and perhaps most damaging, because the percentage of employees paying dues is one indicator of overall union support, right to work laws undermine the power of unions to win fair contracts, by giving employers the ability to clearly ascertain the credibility of a union's strike threat. What's worse is that this is a self perpetuating cycle of union decline because as workers stop paying dues, wages stagnate with weaker contracts, and workers become increasingly dissatisfied with their union and opt out of paying dues in greater numbers.

Southern racism plays key role in passage of first "right-to-work" laws

The same people who are pushing right-to-work laws, in the name of protecting worker rights, both historically and currently, have a bad track record of opposing worker rights and civil rights. In fact the notoriously anti-union 1947 Taft Hartley Act, which Amended the National Labor Relations Act, or the "Wagner Act," and allowed for "Right-to-work" laws was passed because Southern Democrats "Dixiecrats," feared that the Council of Industrial Organizations' (CIO) "Operation Dixie" drive to organize the south threatened to overturn segregationist Jim Crow Laws. And those same Dixiecrats were instrumental in stoking and exploiting the racist fears of Americans in order to turn the South into so called right to work states, effectively ensuring that southern workers remain unorganized. Tragically, the important role unions played in the fight for Civil Rights in this country has been almost entirely written out of our history, which is part of why the Republican party has been successful, even today, at continuing to pass these anti-worker and anti-civil rights laws, even in states like Michigan.

Today the anti-worker Republican party who has pushed the right to work law in Michigan is the same party that consistently opposes raising the minimum wage to keep pace with inflation and the rising cost of living and they are the same party that opposed the Lily Ledbetter Act ensuring equal pay for women. Just as the "Dixiecrats" exploited racist fears, the Republican party behind the right to work laws in Michigan are exploiting the economic hardship that their failed "trickle-down" economic policies created, to convince Americans that Union's are the problem. Republicans hope that as workers drown under increasing personal debt and cost of living, they will chose to forego their payment of union dues in order to keep their Direct TV dish, without understanding that the consequence of this decision is declining wages, benefits, and working conditions for themselves and their children. And, since unions raise the standard wages and benefits of non-union workers many millions of non-union workers will also be negatively affected by these "Right-to-work" laws.

Republicans think that if they keep using the misleading phrase "right to work" American workers, who are "at will," and who, under the law employers are allowed to require all sorts of outrageous things of, will be tricked into believing that these anti- worker laws are in fact about worker rights.

Cobarrubias, Sarah. Right-to-Work in Michigan: Not as Repeal-Proof as Republicans Think It Is. In These Times. December 11, 2012.

Egan, Paul. Republicans lose seats but cling on to majority in state House. Detroit Free Press. November 8, 2012.

Kahlenberg, Richard D. and Moshe Z. Marvit. The Ugly Racial History of "Right to Work". Dissent Magazine. December 20, 2012.

Stockdale, Charles B. and Michael B. Sauter. The states with the largest unionized work forces. NbcNews.com.