Breathe and exhale, union backers.
A blow to organized labor, an affront to workers, disingenuous union-busting—Michigan’s new right-to-work (RTW) law is all of these. And in the birthplace of the hallowed United Auto Workers? It’s almost unfathomable. Union workers and their allies assembled en masse last week, and will likely mount a campaign to rescind the law, for a reason. But, righteous struggle or not, the odious legislation needs to be put into perspective.
We should view it more as a measure of labor’s weakened state than an impediment to future growth, more a manifestation of the UAW’s sad fall from grace than the demise of the labor movement writ large. Aggressive organizing, especially in the service sector, would substantially brighten labor’s prospects; mobilizing to defend ever-dwindling union territory will do nothing of the sort.
The prudential case for fair-share laws—the antithesis of “right to shirk” laws, as writer and labor veteran Rich Yeselson felicitously tweeted—is compelling. They rectify the “free rider” problem that RTW statutes engender. If history is any guide, the institutionalization of RTW in Michigan will weaken existing unions and workers’ bargaining power and, resultantly, tamp down wages and benefits for union and non-union workers alike.
RTW is bad policy. Its proponents are advancing the interests of capital at the expense of labor. But let’s not overstate things.
RTW is essentially a way to maintain union membership, not substantially expand it. It’s the instrument, as a labor-activist friend of mine put it, of unions who rest on their laurels. This isn’t to say RTW laws aren’t unfair, unjust, or anti-union. They are. But absent sustained, aggressive organizing, fair-share laws can only momentarily prop up stagnant unions.
You end up, for example, in Michigan’s position, where the fight against RTW is a fight to forestall organized labor’s decline. Superficially at least, Michigan labor still retains a degree of buoyancy: At 17.5 percent, the state’s union density is about six percentage points higher than the national average. Density, though, can be a crude way to quantify worker power.
RTW wouldn’t have passed if labor still had substantial sway at the statehouse. The standard-setting UAW now enforces two-tier contracts that rankle many of its members. And its emollient leader, whose union brothers (with the assistance of the Women’s Emergency Brigade) once sat in and halted production to secure their rights, seeks to conciliate capital.
I don’t mean to pick on Michigan here. The critique applies to a good chunk of the US labor movement. The employer attack on unions has been ferocious and, blindsided after decades of post-WWII labor peace, unions haven’t been able to sustain, much less swell, their ranks. With a few notable exceptions, unions have atrophied in the private sector.
Despite labor’s moribund state, there are bright spots; the future isn’t irreversibly bleak. Barack Obama’s statement on the Michigan labor struggle—and notable silence on others—is revealing in this respect. Of RTW laws, the president said earlier this week, “they don’t have to do with economics, they have everything to do with politics. What they’re really talking about is giving you the right to work for less money.” The president hasn’t, however, lent his support to striking Walmart workers or New York City fast food workers agitating for higher wages. In short, he weighs in when labor’s being beaten back, not when it’s on the march. This can be taken as a criticism of Obama—it is—but his circumspection also serves to delineate the past and future of the labor movement.
Dividing the country into fair-share and RTW states tells us little about the organizing strategies employed, or the worker culture, or the health of the labor movement in those states. Union are decaying in fair-bargaining states and expanding in RTW states, and vice versa. The organizing strategies and tactics, more than the presence of RTW laws, will determine whether the future of labor is marked by expansion or entropy.
Current and future macroeconomic trends necessitate mass organizing in the service sector. A repository of intensely exploited, low-wage workers, democratically organizing this rapidly metastasizing industry would fundamentally reshape the country’s political economy. Labor unions like UNITE-HERE understand this and assertively organize in right-to-work and fair-share states alike (full disclosure: I’m a member of UNITE-HERE Local 7’s volunteer committee). Disregarding the right-to-work-as-insuperable-
Vibrant unions are composed of engaged, autonomous workers. They—not the staffers or the lawyers or the officials—are the source of the labor movement’s power. As labor organizer Jane McAlevey argues, we should conceive of unions not as third parties interposed between workers and bosses, but simply as organizations of, by, and for the workers themselves. UNITE-HERE inscribes this principle in its organizing strategy, and it’s made them one of the most potent forces in American labor.
There are other instructive contemporary examples: The Walmart and New York City fast food worker actions demonstrate that actions don’t have to emanate from traditional union channels. The successful Chicago Teachers Union strike showed how unions can link their struggles to the broader fight for social justice and underscored the efficacy of the strike. For her part, McAlevey counsels the movement to embrace deep organizing, and not to divorce workplace battles from community battles.
At their best, unions bring democracy to otherwise authoritarian workplaces and assert the rights of labor over capital. They disrupt the system of capitalist domination, shifting power from bosses to workers and demanding dignity where subservience was once the rule. They’ve long been the most powerful progressive force in American politics. In short, a United States bereft of a revivified labor movement is a United States without a more just, egalitarian future on the horizon.
Michigan’s new RTW law is a setback, no doubt. But corralling antipathetic workers and collecting their dues was never a sustainable model. Creative, militant, democratic organizing is the only viable way forward.