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Michigan Supreme Court Upholds Right-to-Work Law, Takes Workers Back to the Gilded Age

On Thursday, the Michigan Supreme Court turned back the hands of time and thwarted workers’ union protections.

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By ruling that public employees are covered by Michigan’s right-to-work law, the state Supreme Court is not advancing the cause of freedom as conservatives argue, but is instead turning back the clock on labor rights to the 19th century.

Republican lawmakers passed the measure in December 2012, making it illegal to require workers to pay union dues or service fees as a condition of employment. Shortly thereafter, public sector employees filed a lawsuit saying they were exempt from the law because their workplaces came under the jurisdiction of the Michigan Civil Service Commission, not private sector employment law. On Wednesday, July 29, the high court, in a 4-3 ruling, rejected the workers’ plea.

The impact on workers and their organizations is not only monetary. Current conspiracy laws also undercut collective action.

With that, the court completed the transformation of this longtime labor stronghold into an anti-labor regime, reminiscent of the Gilded Age US. Back in those days, lawmakers of both major parties said that union contracts bound bosses and workers to a common set of wages and working conditions, and in doing so, unjustly prohibited individual employers from cutting side deals with individual workers. Instead of viewing unions as a collective route to a better life, 19th-century lawmakers sought to portray unions as dangerous conspiracies that subverted individual rights. In response, politicians passed “conspiracy laws” to protect the employee’s “right to work” on whatever terms s/he saw fit.

A similarly misleading individualism inspires contemporary rhetoric. On Wednesday, Gov. Rick Snyder said the Supreme Court’s ruling “ensures that state employees will enjoy the same rights and protections as private sector workers across Michigan,” calling the 2012 measures, “freedom-to-work laws.”

Michigan Freedom Fund president Terri Reid, who backed the law, likewise wrote, “Today is a great day for workers in Michigan … individuals’ freedoms shouldn’t end when they take a job working on behalf of taxpayers … today’s ruling ensures that they won’t.”

Now, one might ask, “Shouldn’t workers get to choose?” The problem is that choice is a red herring, a distraction from what is really a right-wing power play. Michigan workers already had the choice to join a union or not, but even nonmembers paid a small service fee because unions were legally bound to organize and represent everyone in workplace grievances and contract negotiations. This is called “fair share.”

By giving workers the “choice” to pay dues or pay nothing at all, Snyder and Reid are attempting to deprive workers of the organizational resources needed to pressure employers into paying a living wage. Conservative lawmakers are not protecting workers as individuals – they are disempowering workers as a class.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, Michigan union membership has already fallen sharply from 16.3 percent in 2013 to 14.5 percent in 2014, the first full year under the right-to-work law. That’s a loss of 46,860 dues-paying members out of a total membership of 585,000 in just 12 months. Public employees took the brunt of that loss. Whereas overall membership dropped by around 2 percent, public sector union membership fell 4.3 percent, or by 24,900 workers.

The impact on workers and their organizations is not only monetary. Current conspiracy laws also undercut collective action. If workers don’t pay dues, they’re not likely to make other sacrifices for the benefit of their coworkers like signing a petition, attending a rally or walking a picket line. Michigan’s right-to-work law is about recreating the 19th century social order, when the working class was thwarted at every turn in their bid to challenge economic inequality under capitalism. Today, the Michigan Supreme Court made it possible to turn back the hands of time.

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