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Michigan's shameful labor hit

It's 'right to work' legislation is a sneaky effort by the GOP-controlled Legislature to weaken the labor movement and cut off oxygen to the Democratic Party.

December 12, 2012|By Barry Goldman
  • Thousands of demonstrators showed up outside the Michigan Capitol in Lansing to protest against "right-to-work" legislation.
Thousands of demonstrators showed up outside the Michigan Capitol in Lansing… (Eric Seals / Detroit Free…)

LANSING, Mich. — I'm a 60-year-old lawyer and part-time law professor. Chanting slogans is not my preferred method of discourse. But on Tuesday, I was in the streets of Lansing marching and chanting myself hoarse.

I make my living as a labor arbitrator. I've spent the last 20 years sitting as a neutral third party in disputes between employers and unions. It is an adversarial system, and discussions are often heated. But the system works because the parties meet as equals. It wouldn't work if either party were able to dominate. And now that balance is being threatened.

Both houses of the lame-duck Michigan Legislature just passed "right to work" bills. They did it without public hearings or debate. And they did it now because odds are they won't have the votes after the first of the year. The governor has signaled he is likely to sign the bills when they reach his desk.

PHOTOS: Protest in Michigan

There is no justification for these bills except that they are an effort by the Republican-controlled Legislature to weaken the labor movement and cut off oxygen to the Democratic Party.

Let's review. So-called right-to-work legislation eliminates the union shop. Under current law in Michigan and 26 other states, if the majority of workers in a bargaining unit vote to be represented by a union, everyone in the unit has to pay union dues or an equivalent fee. No one can take advantage of the benefits of union membership without contributing to its costs. The effect is that organized labor has both money and political troops. And that means there is a political bloc in favor of working people. Most of the support from that bloc goes to Democrats.

Republicans don't like that arrangement.

Here's the Michigan governor's statement: "We owe much to the labor movement — the end of child labor, the 40-hour workweek, safe working conditions in factories and a guaranteed minimum wage. The labor movement is an important part of Michigan's fabric, and nothing about this proposal eliminates it.

"But we also have another great history in our state and our country, and that's the freedom of association — it's the constitutional right upon which workers' ability to organize as unions is founded. Implicit in that right, though, is choice — the freedom to choose to belong, or not belong, to a union."

Let's suppose for a moment that the governor believes that statement. The labor movement once did great things, but now we need to concentrate on our equally proud tradition of freedom of association. Fine. But why does the same statement by the same governor also contain this sentence: "What's more, this proposal has no impact on police or fire unions."

If freedom of association is the principle driving this effort, why are police and fire unions exempt? Wouldn't they too benefit from "workplace fairness and equity?" It doesn't seem to make sense.

That's because it is eyewash. If you understand that the purpose of the bills is to weaken unions and therefore Democrats, it makes perfect sense. Police and fire unions are exempt because they are politically conservative. They don't need "fairness and equity" because they support the GOP.

The governor's other argument is that "freedom to work" will make Michigan more competitive. As he put it: "Just like Michigan's natural beauty attracts tourists from around the country, our economic conditions attract workers and businesses too. But if another state can offer a better home … Michigan can lose out, no matter how great our state may be. That's why we must remain competitive."

In a visit to Michigan on Monday, President Obama commented on that strategy. He called it a "race to the bottom."

If Michigan can remain competitive with Indiana by becoming a right-to-work state, maybe we could out-compete Indiana by eliminating worker safety laws. Maybe one day we will be able to offer such low wages and taxes, such toothless tort law and environmental regulation and such a compliant Legislature that we will be able to compete with Mississippi!

This was a sneaky, cynical, backdoor, lame-duck gimmick. If these bills are enacted, the labor movement in Michigan will be radically weakened, and capital will be able to further dominate the system.

Hey hey, ho ho, right to work has got to go.

Barry Goldman is an arbitrator and mediator and the author of "The Science of Settlement: Ideas for Negotiators."

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