Michigan opens the door to restoring union power

For the first time in nearly 60 years, a state is poised to reverse its “right to work” law and begin to undo the damage of a corporate-driven anti-union trend.

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Michigan is expected very soon to reverse its so-called “right-to-work” (RTW) law. The repeal, led by Democrats and passing along strictly partisan lines, is a concrete outcome of the liberal party winning a narrow majority of seats in the state’s House and Senate last November and Democratic governor Gretchen Whitmer winning reelection. Democrats managed to outdo Republican-led gerrymandering on Election Day and now hold a two-seat advantage in each chamber.

Showing more party discipline than their counterparts have tended to muster at the federal level in recent years, Michigan Democrats have wasted no time in using their slim legislative advantage in pushing through a repeal of their state’s RTW law. Whitmer is expected to approve the repeal when it reaches her desk.

RTW laws are a particularly insidious conservative ploy to undermine unions. The idea, which conservatives glibly couch in terms of “freedom,” is to prevent unions from collecting mandatory fees from members to sustain themselves. Unions require such fees in order to fund the operations of serving and representing their members. It’s the same with any club that offers perks—membership dues fund operations.

Unions gained the right to do this under the 1935 National Labor Relations Act. But less than a decade later, that right was eroded when Congress passed the 1947 Labor Management Relations Act, also known as Taft-Hartley, which first opened the door for RTW laws. In 2018, conservative justices at the United States Supreme Court ruled in favor of such laws for public sector workers, adding momentum to the rightward shift.

The National Labor Relations Board explains the current state of the Republican-led anti-union trend in this way: “If you work in a state that bans union-security agreements, (27 states), each employee at a workplace must decide whether or not to join the union and pay dues, even though all workers are protected by the collective bargaining agreement negotiated by the union. The union is still required to represent all workers.” Imagine calling AAA and demanding its roadside benefits without paying the auto club’s modest yearly fee.

Recognizing that dues are a source of unions’ financial power, Republicans used every advantage, including ill-gotten ones like gerrymandered districts, to push through RTW laws in more than half of all states. They used deceptive language—who doesn’t want the right to work?—and convinced voters it was in their interest to weaken unions without saying the laws were intended to weaken unions. Americans for Prosperity, a conservative pro-business think tank that we are expected to believe cares about workers’ rights, claimed that RTW laws were about “permitting workers the freedom to decide for themselves whether they want to join a union and pay dues.”

For years, I was required to pay dues to my union, SAG-AFTRA, because California, where I live, is not an RTW state. I did so happily, because even at the nonprofit community radio station where I worked, management was continuously trying to lower operating costs at the expense of workers’ wages and benefits. Union representation helped stave off staff cuts, represented workers in grievance filings, and became our collective voice during contract negotiations. Unions are not just for corporate or government workplaces. They are not just for poorly treated or underpaid workers at Amazon, Starbucks, or Walmart. All nonmanagement workers deserve the kind of power that a union brings. And it’s precisely that power that conservative lawmakers have been (successfully) chipping away at.

The data is clear: those states where RTW laws have been on the books show lower rates of unionization and lower wages overall. A June 2022 paper published in the National Bureau of Economic Research examined five states where such laws had been in effect since 2011. The researchers concluded unequivocally that, “RTW laws lower wages and unionization rates.”

According to the Economic Policy Institute—which has come to similar data-driven conclusions as the aforementioned paper—Michigan’s reversal of the GOP’s anti-union statute would be “the first time a state has repealed a RTW law in nearly 60 years.” The victory is all the more significant because of the state’s historic position as having had “the highest unionization rate in the country” and correspondingly high median wages before Republicans passed an RTW law in 2012. But in the past decade, unionization rates and wages both fell in Michigan. In other words, the state’s RTW law had its intended result.

Now, following Michigan, Democrats in other RTW states such as Arizona and Virginia have introduced laws to restore union power. At the federal level, Senator Elizabeth Warren has reintroduced the Nationwide Right to Unionize Act, which would repeal all RTW state laws. The PRO Act would similarly restore the right of unions to collect member dues nationally.

Conservative Republicans are likely terrified of how Michigan might embolden pro-union momentum across the country. Unsurprisingly, Fox News published an op-ed by billionaire Doug DeVos denouncing the repeal of Michigan’s anti-union law. DeVos’s Michigan-based family made its fortune on Amway, a business that Jacobin’s Rachel T. Johnson called, “the world’s biggest pyramid scheme.” (If the name sounds familiar, he is indeed the brother-in-law of former Education Secretary under Donald Trump Betsy DeVos.)

Doug Devos’s Fox News op-ed is titled, “I know firsthand how much right to work matters,” which might be a true enough statement coming from a billionaire whose family made its fortune on the backs of workers. He also identified precisely that “What’s happening in Michigan is the direct result of the November elections. Democrats won control of the legislature for the first time in nearly four decades.”

But then he veered into the kind of unproven claims that only a pyramid schemer might have the gall to make openly, that “right-to-work states have seen faster job growth, faster income growth, and faster population growth.” He also cited, without proof (after all, it’s Fox News!), that Michigan’s RTW law led to “rising incomes,” and “falling unemployment and poverty.”

Ultimately, DeVos is worried that “Repealing right to work will send a message that our state… will suffer from… less freedom.” And there again is that vague buzzword, freedom. What DeVos really means but doesn’t say is that he thinks workers deserve the freedom to live under the thumb of their corporate bosses, the freedom to remain in jobs that pay less and less, and the freedom to walk away from poorly paid jobs.

Freedom is the blank slate on which conservatives have projected their wildest profit-driven fantasies. But those fantasies are the flip side of their fears of worker power. It’s no surprise that RTW laws stemmed from the Taft-Hartley Act, a pro-business law intended to curb the power of multiracial worker movements.

Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. presciently said, “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.” In the war of words over freedom, Dr. King beats DeVos any day.

This article was produced by Economy for All, a project of the Independent Media Institute.

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