This Is Not Wisconsin. It's Worse.

Sheldon Dick/Farm Security Administration

Strikers guarding window entrance to Fisher body plant number three in Flint, Michigan (1937)

Let’s clear one thing up. “Right to work” laws, which permit employees working at a unionized workplace to refuse to join the union or to pay the union the cost of representing the worker, are designed to weaken the economic and political power of organized labor and, by extension, wage workers. Full stop. They allow workers to “free ride” all the benefits of a collective-bargaining agreement (increased wages, benefits, rights to adjudicate a dispute with a supervisor, safety and health requirement beyond those mandated by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, etc.) negotiated by the union without paying any of the union dues their fellow employees pay. 

The vaunted libertarian argument in support of right to work would be far more convincing if libertarians supported the rights of employees to reject at their discretion the countless rules and obligations that employers mandate as a condition of employment. The argument seems to be that employees are free either to quit a job or not take it in the first place if they find various company requirements—e.g., what time they are to come to work—onerous or unpleasant. Libertarians do not argue, however, that workers have the right to retain their employment yet arrive at work at noon if their employer wishes them to arrive at 9. Don’t start, or quit, but if you’re on the job, follow the boss’s rules, right?

Yet we are to believe that only the requirement that workers must join a union or else compensate the union for work it will do on his or her behalf constitutes a grave blow to the worker’s economic freedom. Despite the high-minded justifications proffered by some of its defenders, right to work has no distinguished, abstract theoretical pedigree, no elevated standing in the mansion of Western political theory. It’s a snarling pit bull of a policy that disempowers the institutional voice of employees—unions—for the benefit of corporations. Most of the wealthy states don’t have right-to-work laws, and most of the poor ones do. Workers in right-to-work states make less than those in non-right-to-work states, and their unions have fewer resources to fight the corporations and politicians who benefit from this lopsided system. That’s the idea.

To understand why the impending transformation of Michigan into a right-to-work state is so mortifying to labor and its supporters—far worse, even, than what happened in Wisconsin and Ohio—one must consider the totemic status of the United Auto Workers (UAW). Although there are, despite all you have heard, many good reasons for public-sector workers to have the right to unionize, nobody ever made a movie or wrote a song about a public-sector worker; public-sector organizing campaigns are pretty tame affairs. But if someone were to write a book titled (with apologies to Vivian Gornick), The Romance of 20th Century American Unionism, it would likely be a dual case study. One story would be about the United Farm Workers of the 1960s and 1970s, courageously built from the grape and lettuce fields by migrant Latino laborers in California. 

The other would span from the mid-1930s until about 1970 and tell the story of the United Auto Workers, the union that the Prospect’s Harold Meyerson correctly called the other day the “best” American union. Mass industrial workers, whom many believed were impossible to organize, spawned the UAW. These workers, the immigrant laborers of their time, shocked the nation with the imaginative militancy of their factory-floor sit-downs and “flying picket” lines at the legendary Flint, Michigan, strike in 1937. The union’s brilliant, incorruptible president, Walter Reuther—himself beaten and bloodied in organizing campaigns—sought, with the power of his union and his ideas, to leverage the United States into something resembling the social democracies of Western Europe. He had to settle for millions of working-class people ascending into the middle class in the 25 years following World War II, benefiting directly from UAW collective-bargaining agreements, or seeing their own wages and benefits tied to those of the UAW (and Steelworker’s union) standard. 

Reuther, furthermore, supported both the nascent civil-rights movement (and fought hard to cleanse his own union of racism), the New Left, and even supported the beginning of modern environmentalism. The Port Huron statement—the founding, now canonical, document of Students for a Democratic Society—was written in 1962 at a UAW-owned campground for use by its members. You can see Reuther standing behind Dr. Martin Luther King during the “I Have a Dream” speech on the Mall in 1963, while George Meany’s AFL-CIO, from a mixture of racism and red baiting, shied away.

The UAW had enormous political clout, too. It couldn’t change the political economy of the country, but it was a powerful member of the Democratic Party coalition. Reuther had the ear, and vice versa, of every Democratic president and candidate of the postwar era. During this era, the presidential election campaign would begin for the Democratic candidate in—where else?—Cadillac Square in Detroit before a throng of union, mostly UAW, members. One can measure the changes in the Democratic Party, Michigan, and the country from, for example, reading the text of JFK’s 1960 Cadillac Square speech.

When Reuther died in a private plane crash in 1970, every auto plant in the country stopped its assembly lines for one minute in silent tribute—thus the “Big Three” car companies honored their remarkable adversary and the formidable institution he and his members built.

No need to rehearse the later decline of the union, the domestic auto industry or the larger labor movement yet again. It is certainly true that the UAW has made more than its share of miscalculations and mistakes, and never developed the strategic competence to first anticipate and then aggressively organize the Japanese and German transplants that opened up across the middle and deep South. It should be noted, however, that when section 14-B of the 1947 Taft Hartley Act gave states the right to permit prospective employees to refuse union membership (right to work) it was not with states like Michigan in mind. The strategy of the act—a successful one over the decades—was to cordon off the union-strong states of the Midwest and Northeast and surround them with anti-union states. No state was stronger than Michigan. When Kennedy gave his Cadillac Square speech in 1960, its unionization rate was probably around 40 percent. Sure enough, all the states of the Confederate South, and most of the States of the Plains and Mountain states passed right-to-work laws or state constitutional amendments. You might say that right to work was the “marriage shall be between only a man and woman” cause of its time, a reflexively oppositional position ardently advanced in the most reactionary regions of the country against a rising progressive force. But, unlike with the cause of same-sex marriage, labor has long ago given up that it could ever repeal section 14-B of Taft Hartley.

Now Michigan’s unionization rate is 17.5 percent, still high by today’s low state-by-state union standards, but far from its peak in the Reuther era. Michigan’s labor movement looked at the aggressive moves over the past two years by Republicans throughout the Midwest—Wisconsin, Ohio, Indiana—to roll back union rights. This past year, calculating that they were diminished, but not too diminished, the remnants of the UAW and the rest of the state’s labor movement took a chance. Via a referendum question, Proposal 2, it tried to permanently inscribe the right to collectively bargain into the state constitution in order to forestall a right-to-work move in the very birthplace of the once great UAW.

The unions went all in, with a comprehensive, expensive campaign. They had several advantages that their peers in Wisconsin did not have when unions there attempted to recall Governor Scott Walker. The referendum was easy to understand, up or down on the constitutional right to collective bargaining. The referendum ran during a hard-fought presidential campaign, with Michigan, as always, a key state. Democratic turnout, and, thus, presumably, support for the union position would be high.

But Proposal 2 ran 12 points behind Barack Obama and lost 58-42. The decline that compelled the unions to lock in their rights paradoxically guaranteed they would lose. During the heyday of Cadillac Square, the right to collectively bargain was a potent fact on the ground. A constitutional imprimatur was beside the point.

The loss provided what is called in an organizing drive a convenient “headcount” for corporations and their conservative Republican allies. The headcount said simply that the UAW and allied unions did not have the unqualified support of most Michigan voters. The unions could, and are, making some noise, but they wouldn’t create sufficient civil strife to defeat a right-to-work flip. The unions could be rolled, the more quickly the better, even during a lame-duck session. The savvy president of the UAW, Bob King, one of the most progressive union leaders in the country, promises not to give up and threatens recall elections. But state right-to-work laws have only been repealed once, in Indiana in 1965. Indiana reinstated right-to-work laws earlier this year.

There is an argument sometimes made by union activists that unions should run persuasion campaigns to collect dues because the workers are more invested and supportive of an energized organization than when dues are passively/invisibly collected on a union’s behalf. There is some evidence that this is true. For example, the most powerful local union in the country, Culinary 226 in Las Vegas—a political powerhouse that ensures middle-class wages and benefits for hotel housekeepers—operates in a right-to-work state and gets close to 100% dues compliance. Thus the Culinary local has the classic “free rider” problem—but the union solves the problem itself through its intense advocacy. 

However, the invisibility and ease of collecting union dues in the non-right-to-work states has paradoxically made unions more dependent on these “automatic” functions than ever. In short, most local unions today are logistically and, often, intellectually, atrophied. They lack the esprit, borne of success and militancy, of Culinary 226.  Unfortunately, on balance, and in most situations, unions need automatic dues collection just to function at a reasonably high level. The medicine may make them weaker, but to take them off it immediately could be fatal.

Whatever the ambivalent benefits of mandatory union membership (or a compensating “agency fee” for workers who wish not to join), the coldly efficient legislative move in Michigan must and will be contested by labor. Unions are struggling. But, as most labor fights are these days, labor will gear up for yet another defensive fight. 

You might think I’m sentimental, with all of this twaddle about union “romance” and the blood and guts of struggle. There surely is a more rigorous, antiseptic discussion to have about the efficacy of unions, how they fit into 21st-century liberal capitalism. Another day. This isn’t Wisconsin. It’s worse. It’s Michigan and it’s the UAW. As Matt Yglesias suggested in a recent Slate post, for a long time, there has been a cold peace between right-to-work and non-right-to-work states. Taft Hartley stopped labor’s growth, but it didn’t penetrate its residual strongholds. But if Michigan can become a right-to-work state within a few days, pretty much any state can with a change in government. A specious argument extolling American individualism is camouflaging a power and money grab by the usual suspects, the kind of companies and propagandists that those farm workers and auto workers fought back in the day. To paraphrase Brecht, these suspects are in heat once more. It is again time to restrain them.

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