The Spark

“The emancipation of the working class will only be achieved by the working class itself.” — Karl Marx

“Right-To-Work” Law:
Sneak Attack on Workers in Michigan

Feb 4, 2013

In January, workers from across Detroit came together at the Spark Public Meeting to discuss recent “Right-To-Work” legislation. The following is the presentation, which started a lively discussion.

Legislature Passes “Right-To-Work”

On December 11, a lame-duck Michigan legislature passed a “Right-To-Work” law, despite the protests of 12,000 or more people surrounding the Capitol building. This law was passed by the Republicans. Whatever other reasons they had, the Republicans passed RTW in order to weaken the Democratic Party, which depends on strong union support.

The unions support the Democrats with money and, much more importantly, with campaign volunteers. In the last election, almost all those people who called your home, or knocked on your door or gave you a flyer for Barack Obama were union members, or members of black churches. By making it harder and more time-consuming for unions to collect dues, the Republicans want to take away an important part of the unions’ ability to support the Democrats. That’s why you saw some Democratic politicians speaking out strongly against RTW.

Pushing RTW from behind the scenes with financial support were local right-wing millionaires like Dick DeVos and right-wing billionaires like the Koch brothers.

People like DeVos and the Koch brothers supported RTW as part of a broad attack on the working class. These wealthy right-wingers are also pushing a reactionary legislative agenda in many other states.

Many Other Attacks Came With It

In fact, RTW was not even the biggest attack in Michigan, but it acted as a cover for a whole set of other backward laws passed by the Michigan legislature.

While most of the media attention was focused on RTW, the legislature was passing laws attacking women by further weakening their right to choose an abortion. Taxes were cut for businesses, again. Steps were taken to mutualize Blue Cross, that is, laying the groundwork so it can transform itself into a profit-making company. A “citizenship declaration” law was enacted, aimed at intimidating some people from voting. An Emergency Financial Manager law was put back in place after the voters in Michigan had just voted to get rid of it. A Lighting Authority was set up for Detroit to let DTE make the profits off it.

And, oh yes, there was also a law passed giving money to multi-millionaire Mike Ilitch to build his new arena complex in downtown Detroit. This same Mike Ilitch has refused to pay the City of Detroit 72 million dollars that he owes.

RTW: Part of the Push for Concessions

But yes, the passage of RTW was also aimed against unions and against all workers, unionized or not. It was an announcement that the wealthy people who own the banks and corporations plan to continue their push for concessions. They plan to continue their attacks against anything standing in their way. Concessions already have led to a significant drop in the standard of living for the working class, in Michigan and across the country.

So what do we have to do? How do we stop all these attacks, not just RTW, but all these attacks against us?

Waiting to Elect Democrats Is No Solution

The union leaders tell us that we have to prepare now to support the Democrats. In other words, we should wait two years until the next election, in order to get the Democrats back in office. But if we put our focus on elections and the Democrats, then we will lose even more.

What would happen if the Democrats get back in office? It’s not even clear that if the Democrats got back in office that they would reverse RTW. After all, four years ago when the Democrats controlled the White House and both houses of Congress, they didn’t even pass the card check law that they had promised to the unions during the election campaign.

But even if the Democrats reversed RTW, what would that really do?

What RTW Really Means

We have to look at what RTW laws really mean. Certainly we know that RTW does not guarantee any worker the right to work, or any right to a job!

RTW laws say that the company and the union cannot agree to force workers to join a union. Nor can they agree to force workers to pay union dues. So, RTW laws may make it harder for union leaders to collect dues.

But what does that really change? There will always be a few people who don’t want to join a union. But if unions are doing what they are supposed to be doing – defending the interests of the workers – then the big majority of workers are going to willingly join the union and pay their union dues.

And if workers were not forced to pay union dues, there would be this advantage – union leaders would have to face in person the workers whose dues they were trying to collect.

RTW On Its Own Is Not the Problem

The fact that workers are not forced to pay union dues does not weaken unions. For proof, all we have to do is look at Europe. Many of the industrialized countries in Europe are RTW states, in a sense, because workers are not forced to join a union or pay any union dues. Workers in Greece, Italy, Spain, or France, for example, can choose to join a union, or join none at all. In fact, in many workplaces in Europe, there are several different unions, and workers have their choice. They can choose a union, if they want, that may be stronger and more militant. In the U.S., workers don’t have that choice.

European Workers Push Back

European workers are facing the same kinds of attacks and the same push for sacrifices that we are facing in the U.S. But in some European countries today, we see workers making a fight. In Greece, Spain, Italy, Portugal especially, the workers are demonstrating, protesting and striking against these government austerity programs.

We Need Strong Militant Unions

Meanwhile in this country, workers have accepted concessions, and union leaders have helped push those concessions on the workers. Having a union shop, where workers all have to join the union, certainly has not made American unions stronger or more militant.

We need unions! We need to join or organize unions! We need workers to pay union dues! But we need strong, militant unions, the kind of union that workers will want to join.

Forcing workers to join a union and pay union dues does not make a union strong.

In fact, if we look at the history of how union dues are collected, we can see how the bosses have used the collection of union dues to their own advantage in order to weaken unions. We can look at what happened at Ford to see that most clearly.

If we go back to 1941, at that time the UAW had won union recognition at most of the major auto companies because of the sit-down strikes at GM, Chrysler and elsewhere. But in 1941, Ford was still non-union. In fact, Ford was still violently anti-union. And I mean violent quite literally, as we saw with the murders of the Ford Hunger Marchers, and Ford’s use of goon squads inside the plants. But when 50,000 Ford workers went out on strike in April 1941, Ford was beaten. It had no choice but to accept the workers’ demand to have a union.

A Beaten Ford Arranges Dues Checkoff

At that point, not only did Ford agree to recognize the UAW as the workers’ bargaining agent, it was Ford that proposed to the union leaders that Ford would be a union shop. That is, not only would the UAW represent every Ford worker, but every Ford worker would be required to join the union and pay dues.

And it was Ford that proposed to the union leaders that Ford would collect union dues out of every worker’s paycheck and give it to the union, so that the union leadership did not have to go around and collect dues. Almost overnight, it seemed as if Ford went from being the most anti-union company to the most pro-union company.

But, in fact, Ford was just being smarter, from the point of view of the corporation. Ford’s better idea was, “If we have to accept a union, let’s do it in such a way that makes the union work for us.”

Ford’s better idea meant that union leaders had an automatic treasury, whether or not workers agreed with what the union did.

Ford Co-opts the Union, Other Bosses Follow Suit

Many other companies soon recognized the advantages of what Ford had done, and they also proposed a union shop and dues check-off in their companies.

By being less tied to the rank-and-file, a bureaucratic apparatus could more quickly develop in the union leadership. And with the company collecting dues for the union, the union became more dependent on the company.

That was the first step down the road of “partnership” with the companies.

Less than a year after the Ford strike, the U.S. entered WWII, and soon after, union leaderships in many industries were agreeing to no-strike clauses, despite workers’ wages falling well behind inflation and despite worsening conditions in the plants. Fortunately, many workers decided to ignore that no-strike pledge and use wildcat strikes to defend themselves.

A Discredited Union Leadership

Today, the union leaderships have become even much more bureaucratic and even much less militant. And the consequences for the working class have been severe.

The top union leaders today speak quite openly about their partnership with the bosses. When the bosses have demanded concessions, it has most often been the top union leadership that has pressured, threatened and lied to workers to get them to go along.

“Partnership” Guarantees Worker Losses

Workers have lost wages, benefits, pensions, and health care that previous generations had to fight to attain. The newest generation of workers is facing second-tier wages and benefits, which will condemn them to a life of poverty. The working class has seen a significant drop in its standard of living, while following the policies of the current union leaderships. Their policies are weakening the unions today.

Their policies have consequences, even for the union bureaucrats themselves. Last November, one-quarter of union workers in Michigan voted AGAINST Proposal 2, the proposal for collective bargaining rights that had been put on the ballot and pushed by the unions.

Another consequence was in Wisconsin, after Wisconsin passed a law applying RTW to public employees. When union leaders said they would give up concessions, as long as the state continued to collect union dues for them, two-thirds of the public workers stopped paying dues to those leaders who wouldn’t fight.

We Need Leadership with a Fighting Policy

We need a different leadership and different policies if we want stronger unions.

The strength of a union is not determined by how dues are collected. It is determined by the policy of the union, its readiness to defend the interests of the workers, its determination to protect our standard of living.

Why would second-tier workers want to join a union or pay dues to a union that negotiated second-tier wages and benefits for them? We need a fight against two-tier! That would strengthen us.

The strength of a union is determined by its militancy, by its willingness to organize workers to use their power.

Leaders Who Call on All the Workers

If we wanted to make sure that RTW did not pass, what could the unions have done? Instead of a rally of several thousands of people making noise, what if the unions had called on all the workers in Michigan? All who have taken concessions! Come to Lansing on Dec. 11!

What if the unions had called on all the retirees whose pensions are being taxed, to come to Lansing? What if unions had called on all the students whose education is being cut, decimated by spending cuts, to come to Lansing? What if there had been several hundreds of thousands of people in Lansing that day, instead of several thousand? What if many businesses and factories and workplaces had been shut down, and their profits stopped?

What if people had made it clear that they were willing to continue that fight, day after day? Do you think that Snyder and the other lapdog politicians would have been so eager to sign a RTW law?

We need strong unions that are ready to organize a real fight like that, to stop concessions, and to gain back all that we have lost. That type of union will not need any laws to convince workers to join their union and pay their union dues.