Right to Work: As Goes Michigan, So Goes The Nation

As the world watches massive labor protests at the state capitol building in Lansing, Michigan, today, Wisconsinites are seeing a repeat of the struggle in Madison two years ago.

Only this time the stakes are even higher.

Republicans, the Chamber of Commerce, and a coalition of now-familiar rightwing millionaires (the Koch brothers as well as Michigan Amway heir Dick DeVos) have banded together to pass right-to-work legislation in Michigan, the birthplace of the United Autoworkers.

What does it mean if Michigan, cradle of the industrial labor movement in America, becomes a right-to-work state?

"That's the thing, isn't it?" says Jane Slaughter, the editor of Labor Notes, the Detroit-based publication that has been the voice of union activists for the last 33 years.

If Michigan passes right to work legislation, as governor Rick Snyder and the Republicans who control the state legislature have promised, "can Wisconsin be far behind?" asks Slaughter.

What about Pennsylvania, where anti-union Governor Tom Corbett has said right-to-work legislation would be too controversial to pass.

"That's exactly what our governor said," Slaughter points out.

"Are we going to be a right-to-work nation, except for New York or California?" Slaughter asks.

The scene in the state capitol building in Lansing, Michigan, is terribly familiar to those of us who witnessed the massive rallies in Wisconsin in 2011.

Chanting protesters are packing the rotunda, only to be pushed out by police.

A blog post on the Labor Notes web site by Alix Gould-Werth, a member of graduate employees' Local 3550 at the University of Michigan, tries to explain how Michigan came to this.

Governor Snyder, Gould-Werth suggests, learned from Wisconsin's governor Scott Walker's mistakes. Rather than make his bold attack on unions all at once, "the Michigan legislators did it piecemeal: taking away teachers’ automatic dues deductions, defining university research assistants as non-workers, and other measures that wouldn’t rile everyone at once."

In an effort that paralleled the recall effort in Wisconsin, Michigan labor activists worked hard this year on a grassroots campaign, gathering signatures for Prop 2, a ballot initiative that would have enshrined labor rights in the state constitution, protecting against the right-to-work measure.

Big money came into the state to run ads opposing the measure. And voters seemed to underestimate the real threat to labor, Gould-Werth suggests.

Prop 2 lost, 57-to-42, and one month later, Rick Snyder, who had said right-to-work was "too divisive" for Michigan, promised to sign the bill.

President Obama came to Michigan and made a strong statement against right-to-work, calling it "the right to work for less money."

But the progressive tone, nationally, on labor, contrasts sharply with what is happening on the ground.

Not only did Obama win by focusing on the auto industry rescue to beat Mitt "let Detroit go bankrupt" Romney, but progressive victories across the country delivered a stinging rebuke to the right.

But the battle at the state level goes on.

It is serious regrouping time for labor.

A comment at the bottom of Alix Gould-Werth's piece on the Labor Notes web site puts it in stark terms;

"Unions did this to themselves," writes commenter NancyEJ.

Among her complaints about labor in Michigan:

"No accountability to the membership. Bullshit third-world election standards. Union busting their own staff . . . Holding themselves to a different abysmal employee relations standard than they do employers. . . . Disenfranchising everyone but the toadies, advancing staff based on their ability to bootlick alone . . . "

This outraged rank-and-filer continues:

"You all tolerated this leadership and did their bidding, you turned a blind eye when they wiped their fannies with the NLRA and slept like babies every night after you saw them treat the rank and file like dues cows, annoyances, parade props and tee shirt hangers. "

Ouch.

"You can't just keep walking around in circles, chanting empty folk song lyrics, and shaking your little fist at stuff and expect the membership and the rest of the intelligent life on the planet to just buy in to your 1960s 'vision.’ And the rest of you can't just keep whining about all unions supposedly accomplished a HALF A CENTURY ago either. 'The dinosaurs who brought you the weekend.' Cripes. It's pathetic."

Is it the unions' fault?

I asked Slaughter (whose organization has been a voice for democracy and activism, not an apologist for union leadership).

In part, she says:

Labor's faults include "continually taking concessions," and "making it clear they'd let employers walk all over them in the workplace."

"You could say that the UAW is the leading union in Michigan and is the union that led the way nationally in concessions of all kinds over the last 30 years," Slaughter adds, from labor-management participation schemes to monetary concessions to two-tier pay so that new employees make half the pay of longer term employees.

"The UAW being a pioneer in concessions certainly didn't help."

If the impending right-to-work law in Michigan shows anything, it's that what Slaughter calls the "mythology that the UAW is this 800-pound gorilla and runs politics in Michigan" is total rubbish.

It might be time for those outraged rank-and-filers to take over.

If you liked this article by Ruth Conniff, the political editor of The Progressive, check out her story "Dean Baker: On Fiscal Cliff, Best Deal Might Be No Deal".

Follow Ruth Conniff @rconniff on Twitter

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