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Origins of Michigan’s ‘right-to-work’ union-busting law

By Fred Goldstein

December 21, 2012

The passage of the union-busting “right-to-work” law in Michigan is a severe legal setback for the labor movement and for the workers, the oppressed and all the progressive masses in the state. If not turned around, it will encourage right-wing, anti-labor forces across the country.

However, it must be emphasized at the outset that so far this is purely a legislative setback. It has not been implemented. The working class has not been defeated in the class struggle. Rather, the labor leadership was politically outmaneuvered by a cabal of right-wing billionaires and their political puppets in the legislature and the governor’s mansion. These forces conspired to put this reactionary legislation on the fast track without even giving the legally required time and processes for the masses to mobilize against it.

The worst thing the labor movement can do now is accept this reactionary legislation as a fait accompli and look to the electoral arena in 2014 — a distant attempt to regain ground lost in the legislature.

There’s a lesson to be learned from the earlier failure of the Wisconsin so-called recall movement. In this period, as the billionaire Koch brothers and their like pour massive funds into the electoral arena and into advertising and propaganda, the labor movement is at a distinct disadvantage fighting on electoral territory alone. To be on much more solid ground, the movement must rely on its real strength — the mobilization of the workers, the communities, the students and all the oppressed in the class struggle.

To delay the struggle until the 2014 elections and fail to mobilize the workers for struggle now would allow this legislation to be enforced, so that a legislative sleight of hand is turned into a real and profound setback for the workers. Such a delay would result in a totally demoralizing, one-sided class struggle, in which right-wing billionaires are allowed to bust unions.

From Wisconsin to Lansing, struggle & fightback

The unions should take their cue from the fact that between 15,000 and 20,000 workers and their allies from around the state and other parts of the country turned out in Lansing on short notice to try to stop the legislation. They were in a militant, fighting mood, even though they were confronted by an emergency situation in which the approval of the legislation was virtually assured.

The unions should also bear in mind the heroic phase of the Wisconsin struggle when workers, students and community activists occupied the Capitol, while tens of thousands of workers and activists from all over the country poured into Madison. For two weeks they tried to stop the attempt to outlaw collective bargaining among public sector workers. Support for the Wisconsin struggle came from all over the world, including Europe and as far away as Egypt.

At that time, the question of a general strike was posed for the first time in decades by the labor movement — although it was quickly abandoned.

That struggle was never allowed to reach its potential because it was diverted into a “recall” struggle, which was really a gubernatorial election by another name. And the bosses — who had been on the run while the occupation and the mass demonstrations continued to grow — were back in charge in the electoral arena with their millions in campaign funds to bolster Gov. Scott Walker.

It is still a question whether, if Walker had been defeated in the recall by the Democratic Party candidate, Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barnett, the law would have been overturned.

The Michigan law, dubbed “right-to-work-for-less” by the unions, is potentially an even-more-sweeping challenge to workers’ rights than the Wisconsin law. To bank on an electoral challenge in 2014, or a recall, or winning a legal challenge in the courts is folly and dangerous.

Lansing should be beginning, not end

In both Wisconsin and Michigan, the workers have shown their willingness to rise to the occasion if given the chance and the resources. It is more fruitful to look upon the Lansing mobilization as a beginning of the mass struggle, not the end.

Admittedly, it will be a long and strenuous road to build the kind of struggle required to overturn the Michigan law. But the basis for such a mobilization exists. The right-to-work law is not the only reactionary legislation being rammed through.

The Republican-controlled Michigan legislature passed dozens of bills in its final sessions, including a bill revising the vicious “emergency manager” bill that had been defeated at the polls in November.

The revised bill, like the previous one, still gives the governor the right to appoint what amounts to a municipal dictator, called a manager, with the power to override city laws and elected officials and tear up union contracts, among other powers.

A law placing restrictions on physicians performing abortions, including requiring special licensing and onerous state inspections, was passed. A voter suppression law aimed at immigrant workers was also passed, requiring that voters affirm their citizenship, their address, their birth date and present a photo identification before receiving a ballot. In addition, the state legislature passed a law eliminating $600 million in property taxes that further undermines funds for municipal services.

Thus the legislature has attacked women, undocumented workers and poor cities that are a majority Black, as well as unions. This is the material and political basis for convening a broad coalition of forces to launch a mass fightback against all these reactionary laws — laws that affect millions.

Need to overcome defeat of Prop 2

The workers and the union leaders in Michigan, especially the United Auto Workers leadership under Bob King, have to overcome the demoralizing effects of a major defeat that set the stage for passage of the right-to-work law — namely, the defeat in the November elections of Proposition 2, which had called for inserting the right to collective bargaining in the Michigan constitution.

This proposition lost by 14 points, 57 percent to 43 percent, even though President Barack Obama swept the state. This came as a shock to the labor movement. The defeat of Prop 2 during Republican Gov. Rick Snyder’s term in office was a signal to the right wing to move the union-busting legislation. It was passed five weeks later.

It was not just the defeat, but the large margin of the setback that took the breath out of the labor movement. It emboldened the right to go further and move union-busting legislation in a state known as a center of union strength, the stronghold of the UAW. The moment the results were announced, the leaders knew that the unions were in great danger. They were reduced to hoping that Snyder would veto it. They went into meetings with him, having been taken in by his earlier statements that right-to-work was not on “his agenda.”

Snyder is a multimillionaire corporate executive, a venture capitalist, There is no reason in the world for working-class representatives to trust him as far as they can throw him. It was the height of folly to give credence to his early denials. To claim now that he stabbed the labor movement in the back is like denouncing the fox for eating the chickens.

The unions got into this position by severely underestimating the political influence and strength of the right wing and heavily overestimating their own social strength. Furthermore, they adopted the wrong strategy and tactic in dealing with an impending move to put over the right-to-work law, which had begun in early 2011.

The Michigan Freedom to Work coalition was formed after the Republican electoral sweep in 2010. In March 2011 Snyder sent up “emergency manager” legislation that authorized tearing up union contracts. Around the same time he put forward laws to prevent the collection of teachers’ union dues.

As word spread that a right-to-work movement was afoot, the unions realized they were facing a potential battle that could end up in a crisis. A broad coalition of unions, headed by the UAW, launched a campaign to preempt the right wing with the “Protect Our Jobs” amendment — Proposition 2.

Right-wing billionaires pounced. Richard DeVos of the Amway fortune, the 67th richest man in the U.S. with $5.1 billion, formed Protecting Michigan Taxpayers, which poured $22.7 million into defeating Proposition 2. (Reuters, Dec. 13) The Americans for Prosperity funded by the Koch brothers and the American Legislative Exchange Council, a front for right-wing corporate forces, joined the struggle. This should have come as a surprise to nobody, given the right-wing political climate. The defeat at the polls in Wisconsin should have rung alarm bells against relying on electoral methods to fight back.

Also shocking was that the defeat of Prop 2 revealed the weakness of the labor movement’s political appeal in the state. That should serve as a wakeup call to the labor movement that it has to repair its relationships, not only with the workers but also with the broad masses.

Build labor-community relations through popular assemblies

It is clear that many people were susceptible to the massive anti-union propaganda spewed by the right wing. The labor movement must take this deadly seriously. After decades of retreat before the bosses, including the UAW’s collaboration in the elimination of hundreds of thousands of jobs and in agreeing to a concession-riddled contract during the auto bailout, cynicism and apathy about unions seem rife among sectors of the workers, as well as the unorganized masses.

The widespread abandonment of the Black masses of Michigan, especially by the UAW, in matters of jobs, foreclosures, destruction of public education, etc., has resulted in a growing isolation of the labor movement from the community. The same holds true among women, the LGBTQ communities and immigrants, who have all been regarded as peripheral by sectors of the labor movement and who at best have received lip service from the bureaucracy.

In addition, the retreat of the labor movement, combined with the economic crisis, has devastated the unions ­numerically.

It was thoughtless and irresponsible for union leaders not to have taken all these factors into consideration before launching the constitutional amendment project. For them not to have considered what would happen if they lost, thereby revealing their weaknesses and vulnerability to the class enemy, was to recklessly court danger.

Wisconsin showed that, when faced with the potential of a legislative initiative attacking the unions, the correct course was to begin the long and difficult process of mobilizing the union rank and file and then forging alliances with the oppressed communities.

At the time of the legislative crisis, when the workers massed in Lansing on Dec. 11 to protest the law, the Committee to Beat Back RTW promoted a call for the movement to consider a general strike and to form popular assemblies of women, the LGBTQ communities, the immigrant community, students and youth, and all the popular organizations to unite to carry out a mass strike.

Many of the workers at the Lansing demonstration responded with enthusiasm to this appeal. A strategy along these lines is the only road back from this defeat. The longest journey begins with a single step. The Lansing demonstration should be regarded as that single step, to be followed by many more on the road to defeat union busting, exploitation and oppression of all types.

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UPDATED Dec 22, 2012 11:44 AM
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