“Right to Work” : A Body Blow, Not a Death Blow

by Street Heat

The signing of “right to work for less” in Michigan is another stark reminder to us all how deep the crisis of labor is. As if we needed another. The fact that the supporters of “right to work” could garner enough votes to pass such a bill in Michigan underscores the determination of our enemies and the extent to which the decline of labor density has weakened labor’s ability to fend off attacks, even in our strongholds.

Right to work will not kill the labor movement in Michigan. If enacted, it will however weaken it substantially. This makes keeping up pressure in the streets, courts and all other points possible to defeat its implementation is essential. There is also still time to mitigate and undo the damage done through a variety of legal and legislative strategies. While the fight is far from ending in Michigan, we must look soberly at our priorities as a movement.

Going forward with the effort to beat back and repeal “right to work” is both necessary and makes sense. The same can be said for the other states who have recently passed or partially passed attacks on the labor movement. In many cases these states will see many of the Republicans who snuck into office in 2010 under false pretenses kicked to the curb in 2014. The energy created by the movements against the attacks on labor and working people represents a movement that has awoken from it’s slumber and this new energy will lead to our taking the offensive both politically and in organizing if our leaderships take advantage of it.

That being said, the rest of the states that have been living under “right to work” will continue to do so until we reverse our decline and begin to grow qualitatively. In those states growth and infrastructure building must take priority over possible efforts to repeal Right to work or enacting “fair share” legislation. This is not to say that we should not take advantage of any opportunity to do either should it present itself (a remote possibility), but prioritizing it over growing our movement, activating our members, and strengthening our organization would be a mistake at this moment. On the other hand, so not to be confused with the more syndicalist abstentionists out there, to what ever extent possible we have to for survival’s sake continue to resist legislative attacks against labor wherever they are.

I live in a right to work state. Anyone who says right to work is an acceptable condition to work under has never lived the experience, at least in terms of trying to build and grow organization.

Every day some portion is spent contemplating how to maintain membership levels in my union. We represent several large groups of low-wage members both newly organized and as components of larger groups of better paid members. These groups of members have an extremely high turnover rate, so engaging with them immediately upon being hired is always a priority. The right to meet and do a union presentation is always a priority of every contract that we negotiate. Freeloaders are subjected to varying degrees of 100% legal social pressure from their coworkers of varying degrees depending on the level of union organization at that worksite. This additional burden of maintaining our membership is a constant financial drain on our union valuable hours of staff time are consumed daily by this area of activity.

Schoolbus drivers organize against cuts to unemployment in Georgia

Where turnover is lower the level of membership is always higher. Our local union’s worksites as well as other unions that are more stable provide the core of our states union membership. Not coincidentally these industries usually represent those area of the private sector where unions used to hold sway nationally. It also reflects the fact that members in these types of bargaining units have a greater understanding of how their membership levels reflect their relative strength to their employer and how that correlates with contract gains.

All this being said unions have survived for decades in right to work states and will continue to do so insofar as we continue to survive precariously on a national level. A strategy for growth and strategic development of capacity in right to work states must be at the center of any discussion of labor revitalization. Ideally this would include creating special funds that pool resources from the union locals at the “bookends” of our country where we are strongest to be channeled into strengthening our structures in the south or creating structures where none exist.

Labor must make an investment in the south and right to work states. It is no coincidence that our greatest enemies are voted into positions of power from the south and RTW states. 

In states where the “war on workers” has been waged the most we must do everything we can to roll back these attacks. At the same time as we fighting to protect our flanks in this war we must work to internalize the mistakes we have made that got us here in the first place. The constant attempts to blame the contemporary leaders of unions where mistakes have been made for decades for this situation serves no one. It is up to all of us now to do the hard work of rebuilding and the best way to do that is a robust and sober discussion at all levels of our movement that dispenses with preconceived notions and opens up to winning strategies. It behooves our leaders to listen.

Street Heat is a a union activist in the south, He blogs at It’s About Power Stupid! Thinking Strategically About Labor’s Survival, where this post originally appeared.

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One Response

  1. An appropriate response in Michigan would have been a general strike the day following the signing of the legislation. What is really discouraging is that this course of action was not even discussed. Instead, we talk about protests, legal strategies, political paybacks, mitigation, and “undoing damage”; These are the responses of cowards. Such a pathetic response from the heart of Union Labor is a gigantic “GREEN LIGHT” to all those who seek to undermine the labor movement.

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