Right to Work: A Setback, Not a Roadblock

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-obstacle argument, the hospitality workers’ union has built, arguably, the strongest local in the country, Las Vegas’ Culinary Workers Union Local 226.

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.

Shawn Gude

Shawn Gude is a writer, graduate student, activist, and assistant editor at Jacobin. His intellectual influences include Chantal Mouffe, Michael Harrington, and Ella Baker. Contact him at shawn.gude@gmail.com or on Twitter @shawngude.


  1. Really?

    Maybe it’s a setback for the union but not for all workers. Workers who want to work but don’t want to be in the union or have their paycheck’s docked for union dues. For them, it’s an opportunity. I wish I’d had that when I was working at GM and the union took a nice slice of my pay. But then again, the state I was in was a “closed” shop.

    • Isn’t the union still required to represent them in disputes whether they pay dues or not in a RTW state if there’s a union in the workplace? I thought that was a sticking point against RTW (draining union funding)?

      • Seems to me that the solution then is to free the union from representing them. MORE freedom… not less…

      • Reihan Salam cites someone who cites someone who says that unions are free to negotiate for just their members — the fact that they don’t do that is presumably because they have more leverage negotiating for the entire labor force, even if it means some free-riding.

        • Unless I’m woefully mistaken, unions are required to negotiate for everyone in the bargaining unit—whether they’re union members, or whether they pay for that representation.

  2. A few obliquely related thoughts.

    1. RTW doesn’t have the big bump in business investment its proponents think it has. States that have enacted it in recent years have not seen a big influx of businesses moving into state. That’s almost certainly because its only one factor among many that businesses might consider whe deciding where to locate/relocate operations.

    2. Nevertheless, unemployment is lower on average in RTW states, suggesting there really is some degree of trade off between pay and jobs.

    3. Although RTW states have lower wage levels, they also have lower costs of living, so that in comparison folks in RTW states are actually not at a lower standard of living than those in closed shop states.

    4. However that is less likely to be because of RTW itself than the other types of policies that a state that supports RTW is likely to support (e.g., fewer restrictions on building, which make home ownership cheaper).

    • You got any direct or anectodal evidence for 3 and 4? RTW by itself should be a driver in higher employment as the hrly wage floor is lower. Maybe in high cost states it might make a smaller contribution that cheaper states.

      • Damon,

        One of my students did a nice senior project on it last year. I was mildly skeptical, and I had to drive him hard to get real data and analyze it properly, since he tends to be pretty ideological. The big triumph was getting him to understand–that is, come to an understanding on his own–that RTW laws by themselves couldn’t explain the comparable standard of living.

        I do think RTW could by itself drive higher employment, but of course marginal labor costs aren’t a business’s only concern (and there’s also the confounding factor of whether, like Texas, RTW states are throwing shiploads of money at businesses to move in. But I’d suspect it does have an individually significant effect.

        Sorry I can’t give you more than that right now. I’d have to look up the students’ sources, but the paper’s in my office, and I won’t be in there much this week or next.

    • “However that is less likely to be because of RTW itself than the other types of policies that a state that supports RTW is likely to support (e.g., fewer restrictions on building, which make home ownership cheaper).”

      How about just having lots of space that many cities might not have?

  3. In my view, the teachers’ unions and the government employee unions represent a far worse threat to labor than RTW ever will or could.

    Any union that is going to survive over the next 50 years has to adapt to be able to thrive in a RTW environment.

    In 2006, I was working at the ethanol plant in Liberal, Kans. making $27/hr.
    In 2011, I worked at the (then) Conoco-Philips refinery in Wood River, Ill. making $39/hr.
    Journeyman scale, both instances.

    In Liberal, Kans. (RTW), I was taking home $1850/wk.
    In Wood River, Ill. (non-RTW), I was taking home $1825/wk.

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