The right-to-work coup in Michigan
Michigan Governor Rick Snyder’s decision to sign a right-to-work law is just the latest battle in Midwestern Republican legislators’ convulsive campaign to eviscerate union political clout. Lansing, Michigan, now follows Madison, Wisconsin, Columbus, Ohio, and Indianapolis, Indiana, as a state capital flooded by union partisans — in a spirited, but vain, effort to forestall these laws.
Unions stand at the core of the Democratic coalition today. They are the last organizations remaining on the liberal side that can effectively appeal to white, working-class men in the Rust Belt swing states. They were crucial to President Barack Obama’s victory there.
So whatever the opposition and the shady legislative tactics, Snyder, his billionaire backers and the rest of the Michigan GOP made the cold political calculation: Break unions’ political power now by stripping them of the ability to raise the funds needed to hire staff, mobilize voters and keep up liberal pressure on state and local officials in the months after the election. Even as Citizens United allows many conservatives to raise unlimited funds, Democratic Party prospects are likely to plummet — turning Michigan as steadily red as Texas.
But there is a lot more going on here than partisan politics. Obama was not quite right when he told a Michigan factory audience on Monday that right-to-work laws have little to do with economics and “everything to do with politics.”
Partisan wrangling, even over hot button issues like voter ID laws, has never been enough to generate the passions that compelled tens of thousands of rank-and-file union members to surge into Madison, Lansing and other Midwest state capitals where Republican legislatures were poised to pass these laws. Our highly charged politics also can’t explain conservative politicians’ determination to use unorthodox, perhaps even unconstitutional, tactics to rush these laws through.
Indeed, liberalism seems to have won a second wind, and Obama and the Democrats swept Michigan and most other Midwestern states. So why do we now find the opponents of trade unionism so emboldened?
Conservatives argue that a right-to-work law can convince industry not to flee the state, while liberals denounce the new statute as a threat to the middle class. Economists have used up a lot of computer power parsing a multitude of inconclusive answers.
But none of this explains the polarization or the passions that the fight over these right-to-work laws has unleashed. That’s because this conflict is about something far bigger — the meaning of solidarity, a way of feeling and thinking about the world of work that is the basis not just of the union idea, but of a humane cooperative society.
“The most important word in the language of the working class is ‘solidarity,’” declared the long-shore union leader Harry Bridges more than 70 years ago, during the turbulent era that thrust West Coast dockworkers on the path to becoming the best-paid, blue-collar workers in America.
Walter Reuther, the legendary president of the once powerful United Automobile Workers, put this in near-religious terms. “There is no power in the world,” Reuther said, “that can stop the forward march of free men and women when they are joined in the solidarity of human brotherhood.”
To understand how right-to-work laws stand in deadly opposition to union solidarity, look back on the violent industrial era that began with the bloody railroad strike of 1877 and extended well into the 20th century. Strike violence in those years was omnipresent, because a conservative judiciary declared union solidarity, in effect, a conspiracy against the public. Unions, the courts often ruled, were a racket that extorted wages and jobs from hapless employers — though these employers were as gigantic and powerful as the Pennsylvania Railroad and U.S. Steel.
Local and state officials, backed by the courts, sent police and the militia in to break up picket lines and protect strike breakers — unionists called them “scabs” — whose right to work was threatened by union efforts to solidify the workforce against the employer. Indeed, the phrase “right to work” was coined in 1902 by market-minded Progressives, who found any institution that sought to thwart the free play of supply and demand — be they trusts, monopolies or trade unions — inherently corrupt.
The New Deal’s 1935 Wagner Act was designed to civilize the world of work by strengthening unions in order to facilitate the “friendly adjustment of industrial disputes.” With the National Labor Relations Board, the Wagner Act “certified” a union as the exclusive bargaining agent for a group of workers.
That was not enough, however, to ensure that these new unions could withstand a hostile employer — either when times were tough, as during the Roosevelt recession of 1938, or during World War II, when the warfare state set wages and the unions gave up the right to strike.
So the government encouraged the spread of the union shop. This institutionalized solidarity by mandating that as a condition of employment a worker had to join the union and pay union dues. To most unionists, these requirements were like taxes and citizenship — crucial to insure strength and unity against any foe.
That worked well during the great postwar boom. But many employers and politicians, especially those in the Jim Crow, low-wage South, hated the new power of the unions. Especially if it even hinted at solidarity between black and white – on the job or off. The 1947 Taft-Hartley Act gave states the right to pass right-to-work laws that made the union shop illegal.
In the South and Mountain West, conservatives jumped at this opportunity. State legislators often declared as a rationale their support for workers oppressed by “labor bosses.” “Pot-bellied Yankees with big cigars,” read one Dixie handbill introduced into the Congressional Record in 1953, will make whites “share the same restroom with Negroes and work side by side with them. It comes right out of Russia.”
A National Right to Work Committee, funded by the most retrograde textile, oil and plantation interests, tried to extend these anti-union laws to the North. That failed for many decades. But the committee’s lawyers did everything they could to chip away at the institutional solidarity this is central to union power.
They have not only fought the union shop, but also the capacity of labor organizations to use member dues in the realm of politics. This is now the crucial arena for capital-labor conflict, because the strike weapon is virtually dead.
With union density in the private sector now at less than 7 percent, most unions are far too small and isolated to win a showdown with a determined corporation. As in the early 20th century, there are too many potential strike-breakers, too many non-union shops and too many unsympathetic public officials to make it possible for most work stoppages to affect the business balance sheet of any particular company.
Thus the union turn to politics and the right-wing effort to blunt that labor weapon. Obamacare, higher taxes on the rich, infrastructure spending, an extension of unemployment benefits: All these public policies would help working Americans. But, as Scott Hagerstrom, the Michigan director of the Koch brothers-backed Americas for Prosperity, told the 2011 Conservative Political Action Conference, “We fight these battles on taxes and regulations, but really, what we would like to see is to take the unions out at the knees so they don’t have the resources to fight these battles.”
Hagerstrom later expanded on this to a Salon reporter, denouncing “the damage that the union culture, the union bosses, have done.”
Enactment of the Michigan right-to-work law is a serious defeat not only for the unions but for the very idea of social solidarity. It promises an evisceration of union political and bargaining influence in a state once ground zero for labor power.
Can the liberalism mobilized by Obama’s re-election sustain itself in the absence of a vibrant union movement? The history of this nation and that of virtually every other Western democracy argues to the contrary.
These events in Michigan have now put us on the path to a most dangerous experiment.
PHOTO (Top): Trent Mauk (L), of the Plumbers and Pipefitters union, faces a line of police wearing riot gear, who are preventing people from entering the state building with the office of Michigan Governor Rick Snyder in Lansing, Michigan December 11, 2012. REUTERS/Rebecca Cook
PHOTO (Top Insert): Michigan Governor Rick Snyder at a news conference in Lansing, Michigan December 11, 2012. REUTERS/Rebecca Cook
PHOTO (Second Insert): Walter P. Reuter in front of a WPA mural during the 1940s. Credit: Walter P. Reuther Library
PHOTO (Third Insert): Demonstration during the Chrysler strike in Detroit, Michigan in 1937. Credit: Walter P. Reuther Library
Photo (Fourth Insert): David Koch, executive vice president of Koch Industries, at the Economic Club of New York, December 10, 2012. REUTERS/Brendan McDermid