Something is happening in Michigan. After a failed attempt in the 2012 election to make collective bargaining a right under Michigan’s constitution, Republicans fast-tracked a “right-to-work” law enabling employees to refuse to pay union dues which was quickly signed by the Governor.
In a jarring response, labor and management seemed to have switched their rhetoric. On MSNBC for instance, it was stunning to see the president of the United Auto Workers argue against the law on practical economic grounds, while the Koch-funded Americans for Prosperity spokesperson suddenly pretended to be a labor rights activist.
Even Michigan’s governor promoted the law as though it were for the benefit of the worker,s saying, “I don’t view this as anti-union at all…I believe this is pro-worker.” The takeaway was that for the corporate world, the law was more than just a cost -utting measure on a balance sheet; it underlies a deeply held logic by the business world.
A perfect illustration of this ideology came from the Wall Street Journal editorial page, not so subtly titled “Worker Liberation in Michigan.” It makes the disingenuous case:
[Right to work] empowers individual workers. As allowed under the 1947 Taft-Hartley Act, right to work merely lets individual workers choose for themselves if they want to join a union. The laws prevent closed union shops, which coerce individual workers to join unions and to pay union dues.
Notice the terms “choose” and “coercion;” under business ideology, opting out of union dues is a “choice,” while closed union shops are “coercion.”
So let’s do a thought experiment: apply the logic of right to work to the Board of Directors of a public company. Under that logic people are “coerced” from joining it because they do not own the proper amount of shares (like paying dues to work in a “closed” shop), but if you allowed people to join without owning stock it would be a “choice.”
The WSJ would surely notice the contradiction between the individual freedom to join and the collective freedom of the board.
It’s why “right-to-work” should to be called “Right to Manage.” What it actually does is remove the autonomy of workers to decide their working conditions (only hiring people who pay dues) and subjugates them to managers’ “freedom” to hire people at low wages. What the logic underlines is workers having control is “coercive” to boss rule.
Much of the effort against right to manage has been to educate people on how it erodes wages. As an analysis by the Economic Policy Institute points out, people in right to work states make $1,500 less a year than states without.
The problem is a lot of people caught on to the “freedom” right to manage offers, a concept which transcends material wealth. It gives workers a sense that, by their “right” not to pay dues, they carved out a bit of freedom from the union. Shockingly in Michigan alone, polls show support for right to work.
To remedy this, we should look to the early labor movement. During the 19th century, unions triumphed because of the radical freedom they offered; not just in material terms (better pay, holidays etc.) but from the rule of bosses, often equated to “wage slavery.”
The sentiment was so common that even the New York Times wrote editorials about it. For instance in 1869, four years after the Civil War, the Timescalled it:
A system of slavery as absolute if not as degrading as that which lately prevailed at the South. The only difference is that agriculture was the field, landed proprietors were the masters and negroes were the slaves; while in the North manufacturers [are] the field, manufacturing capitalists threaten to become the masters and it is the white laborers who are the slaves.
As a study by Hallgrimsdottir and Benoit observes, the idea was empowering precisely because it was more than just economic conditions, the struggle became a “moral category” that existed no matter how well the workers were paid.
Thus the goal should be more than just to show diminished pay; it should be to break the ideological barrier altogether and reveal these laws for what they are: a distribution of still more power to the business class.