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Working In These Times

Saturday, Mar 30, 2013, 1:30 pm

Unions Greet ‘Right-to-Work’ with Defiance—and in Some Cases, Adaptation

BY Matthew Blake

Protesters with We Are Michigan march against right-to-work at Cobo Center, Detroit on March 18, a week before the anti-union law went into effect. (Photo from Working Michigan).  

On Thursday, Michigan officially became the 24th “right to work” state when a controversial new law went into effect, allowing employees enjoy the benefits of a union contractsuch as guaranteed wages and a grievance procedurewithout required union financial contributions.

The law threatens to undermine unions in a state that has long been a labor stronghold: Michigan was the birthplace of the United Auto Workers and boasts a unionization rate of 16.6 percent of workers, well above the national average of 11.3 percent. But there is strong evidence from other states that right-to-work prompts a decline in unionized workers. The lack of guaranteed financial contributions hurts union coffers, and it also means more time maintaining a dues paying membership base than recruiting new members.  “The union becomes more of a voluntary organization,” says longtime labor organizer Rand Wilson, who is now policy director at SEIU Local 888 in Massachusetts, one historically pro-union state that has not passed right-to-work. “Managers are going to be more assertive and they are going to sense that the union is weaker.”

In response, major Michigan unions are marshalling their full strength on walking back the law.  “One way or another, right-to-work will be overturned,” declared Karla Swift, president of the Michigan AFL-CIO, which includes the largest Michigan unions such as the United Auto Workers and the American Federation of Teachers.

That strategy may seem straightforward, but it represents a choice. Leadership of the Michigan AFL-CIO has opted to fight right-to-work rather than change their organizing tactics in response to the new law. Put another way, the biggest Michigan unions are neither adapting to right-to-work’s restrictions in the short term nor laying out a contingency plan for the long term—they are sticking to the line that the legislation’s days are numbered.

In contrast, several smaller Michigan unions are eschewing the fight over right-to-work in favor of redirecting attention to individual union members. Their choice reflects a belief that even if right-to-work is overturned, anti-union forces will continue to wage a fierce and amply funded political battle.

Major unions’ first bid to overturn right-to-work will be in court. A coalition of unions and the ACLU allege in a lawsuit filed this January that state lawmakers violated the Open Meetings Act in passing right-to-work. “The legislation was rushed through the House of Representatives and the Senate without ever going through the standard committee hearing process in which the public has the right to testify and provide input,” reads the complaint, noting that, “The doors to the Capitol were closed and locked for more than four hours” as lawmakers voted on the bill.

A separate lawsuit argues that right-to-work breaks state constitutional provisions relating to public employees. 

It is not clear when the litigation will be heard and what odds it has of success. Roland Zullo, a research scientist at the University of Michigan School of Labor and Industrial Relations, warns that the Michigan Supreme Court is “politically conservative and not unfriendly to [Gov. Rick] Snyder,” the force behind the bill.

If the lawsuits fail, those seeking to overturn right-to-work are looking ahead to November 2014, when Snyder and much of the state legislature are up for re-election. In reaction to right-to-work, “working people will certainly organize around the 2014 election,” Swift predicts. The fact that the “passage of right-to-work occurred through a rushed and undemocratic process” could make “political mobilizing easier,” agrees Zullo of the University of Michigan.

Michigan unions are hoping for the kind of mobilization that happened in Ohio when voters passed a referendum rolling back anti-public employee union legislation. But an energized get-ou-tthe-vote drive does not guarantee success. This was demonstrated during the failed recall of Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker last June, when anti-Walker forces were reportedly outspent 7 to 1.

Even if 2014 brings legislative change, unions must confront right-to-work for more than a year. As contracts expire, union dues will become optional. Some unions, such as the Michigan Federation of Teachers, shored up against this eventuality by getting through many contracts as possible before the law went into effect on Thursday. They are banking on the hope that right-to-work is overturned by the time these multiyear contracts expire. Furious GOP lawmakers in Michigan have in turn proposed legislation cutting funding for any school districts and post-secondary institutions that entered into these new contracts. 

Other unions, though, have pursued a strategy that acknowledges right-to-work might be here to stay, by focusing on engaging membership.

The Michigan State Employees Association, which represents about 5,000 public sector workers, “launched an internal organizing effort,” says Ken Moore, the union president. MSEA hopes to shore up the support of members, and their attendant willingness to pay union dues, prior to December 31, when the union’s current contract expires and dues become voluntary.

The drive siphons time away from organizing new members, Moore acknowledges. But shoring up member support is “something that we had failed to do since our existence,” Moore says. Indeed, one criticism within the labor movement has been that unions focus on political campaigns and expanding membership at the expense of listening to their rank-and-file members.

Another alternative approach is taken by the Industrial Workers of the World. IWW has been organizing low-wage service workers across the Midwest, including a call center in Grand Rapids, Mich. that voted to unionize earlier this month. Grand Rapids IWW organizer Cole Dorsey says that the union’s tactics are not affected by right-to-work. “Labor laws are skewed in favor of the employer, which is why we rely on direct action,” Dorsey says. This means one-off campaigns like petitioning management to give call center workers ergonomic chairs. These actions, Dorsey says, show workers clear and direct ways they benefit from an organized workplace, as opposed to telling them to pay dues in the hopes of future dividends.

The IWW is a small, politically radical union that has long marched to its own beat. But union teachers in neighboring Wisconsin, in response to Gov. Scott Walker’s law that undermines public employees unions by limiting their bargaining rights, have adopted an approach similar to IWW’s. The American Federation of Teachers is turning its attention to informal bargaining, according to a March 20 story in Labor Notes. This means less focus on “old legalistic activities of representing members in grievances and servicing contracts” and more focus on “signing members up, educating them about the new environment, and activating them.”

Larger Michigan unions may yet adopt these strategies. But for now the main emphasis is reversing the law. “The temptation to put all you have into repealing the law is very understandable,” says Wilson of Massachusetts. But Wilson cautions that whatever happens over the next year “isn’t the end” in the battle over Michigan’s labor laws, as political forces continue "a determined drive to reduce unionization or change the conditions of union employment dramatically.” In response, Wilson says, “unions do have an opportunity to recast themselves.”

Matthew Blake is a freelance journalist based in Chicago. He has written for the Chicago Journal, Washington Monthly, Washington Independent and The Nation, among other publications.

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