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

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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