Michigan’s “Right to Work” Law Demands a Class Response
May Day — International Labor Day — was born out of the bitter struggle waged by the industrial workers of the American Midwest. There is no more graphic symbol of the crisis confronting the union movement in the United States than the passage of a “right to work” law in the once mighty union stronghold of Michigan in 2012. May Day 2013 demands that we examine how such an event could have come to pass. What does it say about the state of not just the union movement, but of the overall struggle of the working class?
The passage of “right to work” in Michigan was an attack on more than the unions. It was part of a general nationwide assault on the democratic rights of the working class as a whole — whether unionized or not — unleashed by the ruling class after the 2012 election.
This Attack on a Class Demands a Class Response — a Political Response
Today, the ruling class has no choice but to attack all the institutions that once helped workers defend their interests. This includes the unions, but is not limited to them. Today, the attack on the right of workers to file grievances at the workplace cannot be separated from the systematic years-long assault in Michigan against the right of workers outside the workplace to petition for a redress of grievances through the ballot box.
In Michigan, the anti-democratic emergency manager laws which took away the rights of all workers — whether unionized or not — laid the basis for the campaign for “right to work.” To understand what led to the debacle of
“right to work” in Michigan, it helps to review how the right to form unions was obtained in this country.
The right of industrial workers to unionize was only conceded by the ruling class shortly before World War II. The ruling class needed labor peace to unite America to fight a war that the rulers knew was coming. That’s why President Franklin Roosevelt signed the National Labor Relations Act in 1935.
Known as “labor’s Magna Carta,” the NLRA was designed not just to tolerate unions but to encourage them actively. When he introduced the bill, U.S. Senator Robert Wagner declared: “Democracy cannot work unless it is honored in the factory as well as the polling booth; [workers] cannot be truly free in body and spirit unless their freedom extends into the places where they earn their daily bread.”
The NLRA protected workers’ rights to bargain collectively. It set the stage for the legal victory of the massive union drive of the late 1930s in the gigantic factories that large-scale industrialization had created. The success of that union drive ensured labor peace just as the United States was about to enter World War II.
However, once World War II ended in 1945, the NLRA had fulfilled the purpose for which the ruling class had intended. When workers in many industries all engaged in strike actions right after the war, the stage was set for political representatives of the ruling class to attack the NLRA.
After the 1946 mid-term elections, antiunion forces pushed a bill through Congress that gutted the NLRA. This Taft-Hartley Act was so outrageous that even President Truman called it a “slave labor bill.” (It was passed over Truman’s veto.) Section 14 (b) of the law permits individual states to pass laws prohibiting the union shop — the “right to work” laws. When Michigan became a “right to work” state in December 2012, it was the 24th state to become one since Taft-Hartley became law in June 1947.
The Taft-Hartley Act allows the president of the United States to intervene to end strikes and prohibits secondary boycotts and sympathy strikes. It required all union officers to file a non-communist affidavit and take an oath pledging that they were not communists. (While the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1965 that these provisions were unconstitutional, by then the damage had been done. An entire generation of revolutionaries had been driven out of the trade unions.)
The Taft-Hartley Act became law at a time when industry was expanding. It was designed to limit the power of the unions and stop the spread of trade unionism into non-unionized areas, particularly the South. Taft-Hartley passed because in 1947 African-Americans in the South were still overtly denied the right to vote. Southern members of Congress stated explicitly that they wanted to stop union drives in the South because they believed such campaigns could end with workers supporting integration and communism.
Taft-Hartley was steered through Congress by a coalition of reactionary Republicans and segregationist Southern Democrats. These forces were conservative. They were fighting to preserve the status quo at a time of an expanding economy and a rising standard of living for most workers in the United States.
Fascists on the Attack
The situation is qualitatively different now. “Right to work” is not currently being used to limit the economic power of unions at a time when industry is expanding; it is a direct political attack on the dispossessed.
In Michigan, the forces that led the fight for “right to work” were not conservatives; they were fascists fighting to overturn the status quo. Today, economic polarization is being reflected in political polarization. This polarization consists not only of a splitting of the progressive camp and the creation within that camp of a progressive pole and a revolutionary pole, but also the splitting within the conservative camp and the creation within it of a reactionary pole and a separate fascist pole. The struggle over “right to work” in Michigan included intense pressure put on conservative legislators by organized fascist lobbying groups. This network included national organizations like Americans for Prosperity, founded by the billionaires David and Charles Koch, and a coalition of local groups and donors led by David DeVos, an heir to the Amway fortune and one of Michigan’s wealthiest men.
The forces that pushed “right to work” in Michigan exploited serious tactical mistakes made by Michigan’s union leaders during the 2012 election campaign.
In 2012, unions in Michigan began promoting Proposal 2, a measure on the November ballot, which would have written collective bargaining rights into the state constitution. Opponents responded with a vicious propaganda offensive. (For instance, they asserted that the proposal would bar schools from firing teachers who sexually molest children.)
The campaign against Proposal 2 was paid for by right-wing lobbying groups and business organizations. DeVos contributed over $2 million. The zeal of the measure’s opponents contrasted sharply with the complacency of a union leadership that did not educate workers about the proposal. Michigan’s union leadership was sure that people going to the polls mainly to re-elect President Obama would also vote for Proposal 2.
Barack Obama won the state of Michigan 54 percent to 46 percent, attracting 2.5 million votes. Proposal 2 garnered 600,000 fewer votes. Proposal 2 was resoundingly defeated — 58 percent to 42 percent. As soon as Proposal 2 was defeated, DeVos and other anti-union forces moved to get “right to work” passed through a lameduck session of the legislature.
Carrot and Stick
DeVos personally phoned Republican lawmakers and offered to bankroll their reelection campaigns if they faced heat for voting for “right to work.” He also threatened to support right-wing challengers to any who failed to support “right to work.” Even Michigan governor Rick Snyder — who had previously claimed that he wasn’t particularly interested in pushing “right to work” and had other priorities — was forced to say that he would sign a “right to work” bill as soon as it passed. The aggressiveness of those on the attack continued even after “right to work” became law. Adding insult to injury, the group Americans for Prosperity — Michigan staged “town hall” meetings in 11 Michigan cities to sing the praises of “right to work” just before the law went into effect in March 2013.
The 2012 election campaign showed the bankruptcy of relying exclusively on the Democratic Party and defending only the most privileged sector of the working class. Michigan’s unions focused on ballot measures designed mainly to help their current members. Organized labor failed to aggressively champion Proposal 1, the referendum measure to get rid of Michigan’s emergency managers. This was a terrible mistake. Michigan’s major unions did take a position against the dictatorial emergency managers system — at least nominally — but they spent most of their money, time, and effort on Proposal 2.
Too many in Michigan’s unions still view “right to work” solely as an issue of protect-ing their union’s current members. This is exceptionally dangerous because the passage of “right to work” was an attack on the entire working class, which began as an attack on the unions, but will not end there. Its passage was quickly followed by the Michigan legislature’s decision to pass a new emergency manager law and then the Michigan governor’s decision in March 2013 to impose an emergency financial manager on Detroit.
Senator Robert Wagner was right when he said the democracy in the factory and the polling booth are inseparable. Today, democracy is under relentless assault by a ruling class that has no need for it at either location.
The passage of “right to work” in Michigan shows that one period in the history of the working class has ended, and a new one has begun. As the economic ties between the workers and capitalists are being broken, the stage is set for the struggle to become political. Throughout the United States, what s happening in Michigan has to be seen as a harbinger of the challenges all those committed to the future of the working class will eventually have to confront. On this May Day 2013, when we declare that, “An injury to one is an injury to all,” we cannot limit that declaration just to the economic struggle of unionized workers. The crisis in Michigan shows that today an injury to one has to be seen as a political attack on our entire class and responded to accordingly. The passage of a “right to work” law in the state once known as the very citadel of labor gives us no other choice.
May/June 2013. Vol23.Ed3
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