Michigan, a bastion of union power, is now suddenly days away from possibly becoming the 24th “right to work” state in the country. The Republicans who control the state government are attempting to ram a bill through the legislature that is a major attack on workers’ rights.
The misnamed "Workplace Fairness and Equity Act" was introduced on Thursday, December 6 and approved by majority votes in both the Michigan House and Senate that same day without a single committee hearing or any floor debate. In scenes reminiscent of the February 2011 working-class uprising in Wisconsin, upwards of 3,000 trade unionists responded by immediately packing the rotunda of the state capitol building in Lansing, the capitol of Michigan, in only half a day’s notice.
But the right wing was better prepared this time, having learned some lessons from Wisconsin. The Republican House Speaker ordered the building to be locked down, and the police were ready to evict protesters. The police arrested eight people and pepper sprayed others. Americans for Prosperity, a conservative organization funded by the Koch brother millionaires, erected tents in front of the capitol building to support the bill, and the Michigan Freedom Fund aired radio and television ads in favor of the legislation in the days before.
Republicans were completely dishonest about their intentions during the election, and they launched a surprise attack after the election. Earlier this year, Republican Governor Rick Snyder told the U.S. House Education and Workforce Committee: "I've made it clear it's not on my agenda. ‘Right-to-work’ is an issue that is a very divisive issue… We have many problems in Michigan that are much more pressing… I don't believe it is appropriate in Michigan during 2012." Now suddenly Snyder, a businessman elected in 2010 with the support of the Tea Party, is promising to sign the bill as soon as Tuesday, December 11.
The Republicans are building upon the defeat last month of a ballot initiative which would have made the right to a union a constitutional guarantee in Michigan. This defeat was the result of a $30 million opposition campaign and concerns about changing the constitution in a way that could allow union leaders who are often out of touch with workers to potentially abuse their power, in spite of polls showing that 70% of Michiganders support workers’ collective bargaining rights. The Republicans and their 1% backers now have a month to capitalize on this defeat during the current lame duck session of the out-going legislature. In January, the Republicans will lose five seats and their current super-majority, and then they will no longer have enough votes to ram this bill through.
Right to Work… for Less
The “right to work” label is intentionally deceptive. The bill certainly won't provide the right to a job for the hundreds of thousands of unemployed workers in Michigan. What it will do is undermine the democratic basis of workers’ right to organize. According to U.S. laws, where a majority of workers support having a union, they have the right to a union. “Right to work” legislation undermines this democratic right by making it illegal for unions to require all workers in a unionized workplace to pay union membership dues, even though all the workers reap the benefits of the union. It's like if the phone company had to provide everyone with phone service, but payments were optional, which, of course, would bankrupt the phone company. This legislation would deal a financial blow to the unions, which are the only organizations workers have to defend themselves at work.
There is arguably an upside to these laws, in that they would force union leaders to fight more consistently for workers’ interests in order to convince workers to participate in the union and pay dues for the common good. However, in practice, these laws create an enormous workload for already overworked union stewards and field staff.
In “right to work” states (as opposed to states with “closed shops”), workers’ wages are typically $1,500 less per year according to the Economic Policy Institute. Workers are also less likely to have pension or health care benefits, poverty rates are higher, and workplace injuries and deaths are more common.
African Americans will be disproportionately affected by this bill. Thirty-two percent of all African American workers in Michigan are in unions compared to 17.5% of all Michigan workers. The Michigan legislature also rammed bills through on the same day that restrict women’s rights and access to abortion services.
This is an historic attack in an on-going war against workers. Michigan has been the heartland of union power, and it’s the fifth-most unionized state in the country. If the ruling class can make Michigan the second state in the Midwest to pass “right to work” legislation, then why shouldn't they go for more states?
This sudden ambush has been prepared by a whole slew of battles in the past 30 years that the union leaders failed to effectively resist. In 1989, one in five workers was in a union. Today, it's closer to one in ten. And when the economic crisis hit, Michigan was hit harder than most states, losing 750,000 jobs. The union leaders bear a huge responsibility for failing to fight for good jobs. United Auto Workers leaders in particular have spearheaded "labor-management cooperation" schemes that have benefited managers and investors while workers’ wages and benefits have been slashed.
In this context, the Republicans are presenting their anti-union legislation as a program for creating jobs. Michigan Republicans point to Indiana where similar “right to work” legislation was implemented last year for the first time in the Midwest. Snyder says Michigan has now lost a competitive edge to their neighboring state, and passing this anti-union legislation is the best way to attract new jobs to Michigan.
However, Republicans oppose raising taxes on the 1% by a single dime. They support slashing state budgets and thousands of jobs with them. They are not concerned about jobs or workers. They are concerned about profits for the 1%.
A Warning to the Labor Movement
If this bill passes, it will have devastating effects on workers' rights in Michigan. The labor movement has literally days to stop this attack. The unions have announced Tuesday, December 11, the day the bill could be signed, as a day for protest and civil disobedience at the capitol. But will this be enough to stop the Republicans?
The Republicans appear prepared to disregard widespread protests to push the bills through. They saw that in Wisconsin, in spite of unprecedented massive protests and an occupation of the capitol building that lasted for weeks, the union leaders were unwilling to mobilize the workers to strike and shut the state down. As a result the Republicans were able to weather the storm and come out victorious. The Republicans in Wisconsin did not have the current super-majority that the Republicans in Michigan have for a few more days. Republicans in Michigan also have deliberately attached this legislation to an appropriations bill, which means that it cannot be overturned by a popular referendum.
This attack by the right wing comes in the aftermath of Romney and the Republicans’ nationwide defeat in the recent November elections, which, for the most part, saw the defeat of anti-same sex marriage and other right-wing ballot initiatives. This bill in Michigan is an act of desperation by Republicans to shamelessly ram through legislation they want before the will of the voters is implemented and the Republicans lose their super-majority.
However, this attack also comes in the aftermath of the Arab revolutions, Wisconsin, Occupy, the Chicago Teachers Union victorious strike, the Walmart workers struggle, the New York fast food workers walk-out, and a strike in L.A. that shut down the biggest port in the country for 8 days. The time is ripe for a counter-offensive. Millions could be mobilized in defense of workers’ rights in Michigan and across the country. It would be particularly shameful if the union leaders did not take the steps that are absolutely necessary right now to mobilize the full power of working people.
The Courts and the Democrats
Labor activists have filed lawsuits accusing Republicans of violating laws such as the state’s open-meeting laws by locking the state capitol doors. However, one judge has already ruled that the police did not violate state law. Waiting for the courts to further consider arguments that may not end in workers’ favor ultimately works to the advantage of the wealthy elite by channeling workers’ power away from immediate, more effective forms of struggle. The courts have never been the most favorable terrain for unions. Reliance on the courts takes away from our most powerful weapon as the working class - our collective ability to strike and shut down businesses and organize mass protests in the streets.
The Democrats in Michigan have called on Obama to withhold federal funds to Michigan to force Republicans to back down. (Obama had previous plans to meet with the governor on Monday, December 10.) Because of the Democrats’ dependence on the unions for getting out the vote, it is not ruled out that Obama and the Democrats might regard the Republican legislation as going too far, and they might pressure Governor Snyder to agree to some kind of compromise.
But we cannot rely on Obama who did nothing to help workers in Wisconsin or teachers in Chicago who were viciously attacked this summer by Democratic Mayor Rahm Emanuel. Obama abandoned the Employee Free Choice Act, and he didn’t even mention unions in his acceptance speech at the 2012 Democratic National Convention, which was held in the “right to work” state of North Carolina. Obama's bailout of the auto industry also demanded that the United Auto Workers agree to slash wages for new hires and dismantle benefits.
In Wisconsin, the Democratic politicians as well as most union leaders actively channeled the historic mass uprising of workers away from occupying the state capitol and into a recall election campaign instead of organizing a one-day public sector general strike, which would have been far more effective as Socialist Alternative argued at the time. The immediate effect was to allow the legislation in Wisconsin to pass, inflicting immediate damage on the unions.
Ultimately, the recall failed because the Democratic gubernatorial candidate agreed to parts of Governor Walker's hated anti-union legislation, he tried to evade this central issue during his campaign, and he used similar legislation himself to attack unions when he was the mayor of Milwaukee! This is typical of the Democratic Party – they use unions to get out their vote, but they balance their budgets on the backs of workers, too, just not as fast as the Republicans. That's why we need a workers’ party to defend the interests of workers against the attacks of both corporate parties.
Mobilize the Independent Power of Workers
Working people and the unions have enormous power in numbers. That is the key to the entire situation right now. Failing to use this power decisively would be a recipe for disaster.
That's why it's a mistake that Michigan union leaders did not call for further mass actions until Tuesday. They do not seem prepared to match the determination of the 1% with determined action by the 99%. Instead, Michigan AFL-CIO President Karla Swift and other labor leaders are focusing on mobilizing workers to merely call and lobby politicians in Michigan. But the best way to make these rabidly pro-corporate politicians listen to us is to show them we have the power to shut down business as usual! What's needed is an immediate escalation of mass actions, mobilizing thousands of workers, Occupy activists, and supporters to occupy the capitol – turning Lansing into Zuccotti Park!
But, as with Wisconsin, the Republicans are likely prepared to ride out mass demonstrations. So while occupying the capitol is important, it probably won't be enough. To really demonstrate the power of working people, immediate mass strike action should be called to shut down the capitol, including schools and workplaces. After all, we need every single person to go to the capitol anyway, not work or school. But also by striking, it will show the power workers have, which, when mobilized, can move heaven and earth.
Strike action, particularly if it's well organized, will raise the stakes. Rather than the Republicans having to only face a mass protest, they will have to face the complete shutting down of the state. To really drive the point home, workers should cut off the heat and electricity to the capitol building itself. If the politicians want to strip working people of their rights, they can do it in the cold and dark!
If the union leaders at the top are not prepared to act decisively, working-class activists should take a page from Wisconsin and organize actions from below themselves. Rank-and-file committees in workplaces should be immediately organized to lead unofficial actions, perhaps in the form of mass “sick-outs” like the teachers organized in Wisconsin, to be able to travel to the capitol building in Lansing.
A few strikes in a few workplaces could inspire workers elsewhere to take matters into their own hands and also go on strike, which would pressure the union leaders to call for mass, coordinated action. Students in Michigan will face an even likelier future of dead-end McJobs if the bill passes, so students, too, should organize walk-outs across Lansing, Detroit, Dearborn, and other cities.
We should not let existing anti-union laws limiting workers’ ability to strike stand in our way. Past struggles show that anti-strike and anti-union laws can be overcome by mass action. Besides, it's better for the unions to break the bosses’ laws than to let the bosses’ laws break the unions!
If “right to work” legislation passes in Michigan – the fifth most-unionized state in the country – it will embolden the 1% across the country to go on the offensive. As American labor law expert Gordon Lafer explained, “Right-to-work bills were introduced in about 20 states in 2011 and 2012. This is part of a campaign to get rid of unions for both economic and political reasons” by well-funded conservative groups who laid the groundwork for a right-to-work vote in Michigan for some time. The entire labor movement across the U.S. should organize protests, mobilizing people to Lansing where possible, and organizing solidarity actions across the country.
The union movement has only days before the hard-won gains of past generations of workers are set back. Decisive action, mobilizing the full force of the labor movement, is the only thing that will stop the henchmen of the 1%.