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Labor Unions on the Brink

The Middle Class was built on the backs of organized labor. But today unions are dying.

Ten thousand workers converged on the Michigan state capitol today for the latest labor battle in what’s been a three decades long losing war for labor rights in America. And with their backs against the wall, Michigan unions face annihilation (and the subsequent annihilation of organized labor across America) or redemption.

It’s through unions that working Americans got living wages, the forty-hour work week, and benefits and pensions so they could raise a family, reach the American Dream, and retire comfortably. The Middle Class was built on the backs of organized labor.

But today unions are dying.

It was disconcerting back in February of this year when Indiana transformed into a Right-to-Work for less state – a sign that the union-busters have moved into the nation’s Rust Belt, where organized labor was born. And it’s downright frightening now that Michigan – home of the powerful auto unions – has suffered the same fate.

Michigan is the fifth most unionized state in the nation, with nearly one-third of all voters living in union households. But Michigan’s organized labor community was outmatched, or at least caught off guard, by a corporatist sneak attack led by Dick DeVos and the Koch brothers last week. They forced Republican Governor Rick Snyder to renege on earlier promises, turn his back on working people, and throw support behind Michigan becoming the 24th Right-to-Work-for-Less state in America.

Now, workers in Michigan can expect the lower wages, minimal benefits, and more deadly workplace accidents that accompany Right-to-Work-for-Less laws wherever they spring up. And labor unions in the state will watch helplessly as critical revenue dries up and organizations fracture under the weight of unionized freeloaders who now have “the choice” to not pay their union dues.

The Koch’s strategy can be summed up in one sentence: If this can happen in Michigan, then it can happen in any state. And given what’s happened to organized labor all around America over the last several decades, the takedown of Michigan just may signal the beginning of the end of labor unions as we know them.

While we can never write off the power of organized working people, the trends are difficult to ignore.

Beginning in the 1960’s, union representation in America began declining and then rapidly crashed after Reagan moved into the White House and promptly busted up the Air Traffic Controllers Union, PATCO, in 1981. A third of the American workforce was unionized forty years ago, today it’s just above a tenth. And if you’re looking strictly at private sector unions, fewer than 7% of workers are unionized.

Smelling blood, corporatists and Conservatives have put the last remaining strongholds of organized labor into their crosshairs. Collective bargaining rights for public employee unions are a favorite target of Conservative lawmakers nowadays, as we saw in Wisconsin and Ohio. Unionized cops and firefighters are losing their jobs thanks to Conservative austerity policies at the state level.

In Camden, New Jersey – the most dangerous city in America – the entire unionized police force is getting pink slips and will be replaced by non-unionized law enforcement scabs. Teachers unions are under assault by non-unionized private charter schools, which was one of the primary issues motivating the Chicago Teachers Union strike. And then there’s the United States Postal Service and its half-million unionized employees, which is currently choking on a poison pill prescribed by Republicans in Congress back in 2006 that is forcing one of the nation’s oldest institutions into insolvency and eventually extinction.

The situation is grim, and working people know it. They’ve won a few proxy battles, like in Wisconsin where they triggered a recall against Governor Scott Walker, in Ohio by repealing the state’s anti-collective bargaining law, and in Michigan by repealing the state’s “financial managers” law. But compared to what’s happening right now in Michigan, they may have won a few battles just in time to lose the war.

But maybe – just maybe – shoved up against the wall and nowhere else to go, working people in Michigan will reverse the tide of this war. Labor unions around the nation must stake out Michigan as their Stalingrad and realize that the future of organized labor as we know it hinges on overturning this Right-to-Work for less law in Michigan.

With tens of thousands of working boots in the streets, perhaps the help of a President who understands this historical moment for working people, and the good fortune of a Republican Party that is overreaching and routinely stepping over its boundaries, then the corporatists’ long and bloody assault against working people may finally crash against the banks of Lake Huron.

It’s just possible Rick Snyder’s Michigan could be a Todd Akin moment that the Republican Party will live to regret.

Perhaps this is a bit optimistic considering the last several decades. But who here is really willing to count out working people? Who here is willing to say that organized working people, who have historically been the strongest force for political change in the world, can’t win again in Michigan?

Stay tuned.