Once again, labour battles in Michigan

By Richard C. Longworth

If you're going to kick someone when he's down, it's a good idea to make sure he'll stay down.

Over the howls of organised labor, the Republican majority in the Michigan legislature this week will pass right-to-work legislation. Until now, unions in unionised companies could require that all workers pay union dues as a condition of employment, to prevent them from getting a free ride on gains won by the unions. Right-to-work laws eliminate that requirement, leaving employees free to pay dues or not.

Business groups say right-to-work laws are a blow for worker freedom. Union supporters say they just weaken unions and should be known as right-to-work-for-less laws. The unions have a point: average wages in right-to-work states are usually lower than in states without these laws. 

Governor Rick Snyder, a Republican, earlier opposed any right-to-work legislation, saying it would be too divisive, but now says he will sign the measure. Democrats and union leaders vow demonstrations and delaying tactics to keep the bill from becoming law, but their chances are slim. Michigan, the birthplace of the United Auto Workers and one of the union bastions in industrial America, will become the second industrial Midwestern state to become a right-to-work state, after Indiana, where Republican majorities passed a similar bill last year and outgoing Governor Mitch Daniels signed it.

In the decades-long struggle between business and labour, business just won a battle. Whether it will win the war remains to be seen. The Michigan battle inevitably will energise Democrats and union backers. In the long run, this victory may come back to haunt the victors.

But the fact is that this is a battle that didn't need to be fought. Michigan played a key role in union history and some of the great labor battles were fought there. But this was in the heyday of huge corporations, especially the car companies, which spawned the unions. As these corporations have shriveled and shrunk, so have the unions. Today, only 17 per cent of Michigan workers are unionised, and this includes the relatively heavily unionised public service workers.

In other words, unions aren't very important anymore anywhere, including Michigan. Many new firms aren't unionised and some older firms, like the car companies, have persuaded the UAW to accept two-tier wage scales and other concessions that would have led an older generation of union leaders to call a strike. The economic problems of Michigan and other Midwestern states can't be blamed on unions these days, and any solutions don't depend on limiting union power.

The current battle is one of the last skirmishes in a business-labor war that raged a half century or more ago, although no politician will admit it. In private, business leaders in Michigan still rail against unions, as though they still had power. In public, the Republican leaders insist the right-to-work law is just a way to lure businesses to Michigan. In the process, they defend the law with rhetoric that they themselves know isn't true.

"This is not about Republicans versus Democrats," House Speaker Jase Bolger said, even though the votes have been along party lines. "This is not about management versus labor. This does not change collective bargaining. This is not anti-union."

It is, of course, deliberately anti-union. Because union power is so weakened, the law is mostly symbolic. But as any politician knows, symbols are important — sometimes more important than facts.

At a time when factory wages are stagnant or falling, when unemployment is high, and when robots replace humans on assembly lines, there is growing sympathy for hard-hit workers. Anything that is even perceived as hurting these workers could cause a backlash, even among voters who have never worn a hard hat nor carried a union card.

In the last presidential election, the Republican Party found it needs large groups of people — immigrants, Hispanics, the young, women — that it had often alienated, and shows signs of changing policies to embrace them. At this stage in the party's history, it's probably a bad idea to alienate another group: unionised workers and their unions. Not so long along, the GOP won over large blocs of these so-called "Reagan Democrats". The current battle in Michigan could send them back to the Democrats for another generation. 

Particularly raw was the way this law was passed. The Republican majority, which is due to shrink when the newly-elected legislature takes its seats in January, literally jammed it through within hours, with little debate and no committee hearings. 

Supporters of the law say it is needed to attract business to Michigan, although there is little evidence that right-to-work laws entice new investment these days. Much of Michigan's old auto industry moved south in the Sun Belt era to escape unions; those huge unionised firms are long gone now. Most new investment comes from small, high-end companies that are unlikely to be unionised anyway. A right-to-work law seems most likely to draw in bottom-feeding companies whose main interest is in saving money on wages, not on attracting high-skill and high-wage employees.

The recent history of anti-labour laws in the Midwest is mixed.

The conclusion seems obvious — that the law amounts to little more than business taking revenge on hated unions. The same thing has happened in Wisconsin, where a Republican-dominated legislature crippled public service unions; in Ohio, where Republicans limited the bargaining rights of unions; and in Indiana, with its own right-to-work law. 

In Ohio, voters repealed the anti-collective-bargaining law in a special referendum by a 60 per cent margin. But Democratic hopes of recapturing at least one of the two houses in the legislature in the general election failed.

In Wisconsin, pro-labour attempts to recall Governor Scott Walker failed, although political analysts there say that even pro-labour voters voted for Walker, because they disliked the idea of a recall election even more than they disliked him. A few months later, Wisconsin went Democratic in the presidential election and elected a new Democratic senator.

In Indiana, neither Daniels nor the Republican Party suffered. Indiana went Republican in the presidential election and the loss of a US Senate seat there had nothing to do with unions.

In Michigan, voters gave a victory just last month to pro-business and anti-union forces when they solidly rejected a proposed state constitutional amendment, called Proposal 2, which would have locked various labour protections into the constitution. Ironically, one part of Proposal 2 would have banned any right-to-work law. 

This post was originally published at The Midwesterner

12 December 2012