Be alert, American workers: The passage of right-to-work legislation in Michigan means serious trouble for unions and their supporters everywhere. Yet there's legitimate hope that it also could lead to a revitalized labor movement.
You can be sure the action by Michigan, long one of the country's most heavily unionized states, home of the pioneering and pace-setting United Auto Workers and iconic labor leader Walter Reuther, will inspire anti-labor forces in other states to try to enact right-to-work laws.
Union foes are certain to seize on the Michigan vote, and the passage earlier this year of a right-to-work statute in Indiana, as evidence of labor weakness that they will try mightily to exploit, politically and otherwise.
They're already seeking right-to-work laws in Ohio and Wisconsin and planning other steps around the country to weaken the economic and political clout of unions and their supporters and thus weaken the basic rights and economic position of all working people.
As contradictory as it might seem, that could lead to a badly needed revitalization of labor. For it should make it unmistakably clear to unions and their supporters that there's a very serious need for a greatly stepped-up mobilization against their political and economic enemies.
True, unions lost a major campaign this year in trying to recall Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker for his attacks on the collective bargaining rights of public employees. But that should not dissuade labor from waging other efforts against union opponents. They came close to recalling Walker and, in doing so, laid the groundwork for future campaigns and proved that unions are quite capable of waging major campaigns against their opponents. That surely discouraged at least some others from taking anti-labor actions that would anger labor and its powerful supporters.
Notably impressive as well was labor's role in helping elect – and re-elect – President Obama. Labor opponents and supporters alike learned from that, if they didn't already know it, that unions have the money and the manpower to mount major campaigns. They put millions of dollars and millions of campaign workers into their extraordinary efforts on Obama's behalf.
Obama has responded by appointing a pro-union secretary of labor, Hilda Solis, and other pro-labor men and women to run the Labor Department, plus issuing executive orders that have strengthened the rights and legal protections of working Americans.
But unions are of course doing less well in Michigan and most other states, and that's being reflected in Congress, where labor has had a rough time getting approval of national measures such as a higher minimum wage.
Most importantly, labor has been unable to garner the votes for passage of the Fair Employee Free Choice Act that has long topped labor's political agenda. The act, which has been stalled in Congress for three years, would give workers the absolute right to unionization by making it easier for them to form and join unions.
Also high on labor's agenda is the pressing need to modify the 1947 Taft-Hartley Act. It has allowed states to enact right-to-work laws, even though the laws, now in Michigan and 23 other states, are clearly designed to weaken – if not destroy – unions by denying them the right to collect the money from members that is essential to effectively represent them in bargaining.
Dick Meister is a San Francisco Bay Guardian columnist who has covered labor and politics for more than a half-century as a reporter, editor, author and commentator. Contact him through his website, www.dickmeister.com.
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