Right to Work for Less and the Destruction of Solidarity

by Joe Burns

Joe Burns

Joe Burns

To some the passage of the right to work for less legislation in the union stronghold of Michigan signals the strength of labor’s enemies. Sure enough, the passage of the right to work for less bill in Michigan represents the power of money and influence. Even though they lost in the election, the right wing continues its relentless attack against what remains of the labor movement. But that is nothing new.

To others, the passage signals union weakness. Certainly this was the main message of the mainstream news, with NPR and the New York Times running pieces discussing how the passage demonstrated union weakness. Again, that is too obvious to be our takeaway. With lockouts at record levels and employer-provoked strikes successfully garnering concessions, that we are getting our asses kicked should be readily apparent.

No, the main lesson we should take from the Michigan defeat is how completely and utterly messed up labor’s current strategies are and have been for decades. It should be a wakeup call for the labor movement that no business as usual will be tolerated and an opportunity to question the underlying premises of modern trade unionism.

Our enemies are constantly thinking bigger thoughts. They plot and they scheme and they focus on changing “the rules of the game” relentlessly. Even when we are down and barely breathing, they have the sense to try and exterminate us. That is the difference between us and them, and in reality, why they are winning.

In and of itself, the passage of the right to work law in Michigan will have little effect on the future of trade unionism in the United States. Sure the labor movement will lose money and thus be weakened and it truly is a bad thing for the representation of the workers involved. And on the level of ideology, the idea that alleged rights of individual workers can trump class solidarity is repugnant. Yet, the Michigan right to work for less law is a symptom rather than a cause of labor’s problem.

For labor’s problem is not one of money or resources. Certainly, for the unions involved the loss of the dues involved will likely hurt representation, as free riders will no longer be required to pay for the benefits of unionism. But in terms of labor’s future, our problem is not the lack of resources. Labor unions have hundreds of millions of dollars in strike funds and collect hundreds of millions in dues every year. The loss of the dues in question will not materially affect labor’s future.

Our bigger problems are really ones of ideology and overall strategy. The right to work for less legislation is but one piece of a decades-long project of employers to strip trade unionism of solidarity and twist it to conform strictly to the workings of market economics. So to truly understand the origins of the right to work for less push requires discussing some basic labor economics.

Trade unions originally arose because workers understood that selling their labor on the open market only led to poverty. Unlike other “things” that could be sold, human labor was indivisible from human beings. Workers could not simply store their labor until they could sell their labor for a better price. Capital of course wanted to pay as little for labor as possible, using competition between workers to drive the cost of human labor down. So of necessity, successful trade union efforts required stopping or altering the market in human labor.

Unionists did that by asserting that an employer did not have the right to buy an individual’s labor for cheaper than the union set standard, and relatedly that individual workers did not have the right to undercut union labor. The collective rights of workers outweighed the individual “rights” of scabs and business owners. Unions fought for industry-wide agreements designed to take labor out of competition. The closed shop, the picket line, and the boycott were the tools that labor utilized to ensure that scab labor was not allowed to undercut union labor or similarly that non-union shops were not allowed to undercut union shops.

These methods were essential in establishing effective unionism. Employers were forced to reluctantly allow unionism because of the militancy of the labor movement during the 1930s and beyond. They, however, fashioned labor law into their own vision, eventually eliminating all of the essential elements of trade unionism discussed above.

Over the last 80 years they have succeeded in gutting solidarity by:

  • Outlawing the effective picket line, a necessary tool to raise wages above “free market” rates.
  • Allowing employers to permanently replace striking workers thus converting the strike into an act of collective quitting.
  • Outlawing solidarity and along with it mechanisms to standardize wages across industry.
  • And, they used right to work as a wedge within workplaces to destroy internal solidarity.

Of all of these restrictions, the elimination of the requirement to pay dues is arguably the least important. These are, however, all parts of the same overall ideological and legal project, the destruction of solidarity and the imposition of Corporate America’s version of labor economics upon the labor movement.

After a decade and a half of confusion, we have some hopeful signs within the labor movement. We have as yet, however, had relatively little discussion of the necessity of breaking free from the restrictions imposed by labor law. We cannot revive the labor movement without addressing this question and reviving true labor solidarity. Perhaps we can use the imposition of right to work laws to question the fundamental pro-employer premises embedded in modern labor law.

Joe Burns, a former local union president active in strike solidarity, is a labor negotiator and attorney.  He is the author of Reviving the Strike:  How Working People Can Regain Power and Transform America (IG Publishing, 2011), which was reviewed on Talking Union by Carl Finamore. Burn’s website is here.

6 Responses

  1. Union have been slow to react in my opinion but we also have to look at public opinion and the economy to develop a better picture of labour.
    The labour movement ebbs and flows with economy and in the meantime unions need to spend the money and time redefining the their values in today’s environment.

  2. Great read. Once we decide, like we have in the past, that unjust laws must be broken we will have a labor movement.

  3. Excelent writting Joe. Ck out my wall and writing style. I want to become an activist for the selfless middle class cause. John Richey

  4. One of the problems as I see it is that we got away from using the term working class in favor of middle class. That kind of subtle shift in relational status has undermined a larger sense of class solidarity. My retired 88 year old mother who packed sunglasses for Polaroid considers herself middle class……Let’s face it: when an electrician considers himself in the same class an an IT guy making 6x the salary then he’s not going to look back on the guy unloading the beer truck as a brother….Recapture the term working class and the dental assistant will have a new perspective, too………and let’s update one term: our human rights are being violated. People respond to that term. If we simply say Walmart is unfair to labor no one will pay attention. If we call them what they are–human rights violators–then the media will be all over it and the word will get out about how the working class is being trated.

  5. Excellent piece. Thanks.

  6. Joe, great perspectives just like in your book. I agree that labor is no longer a “movement” but rather operates like the businesses we fight. I think the solidarity is there but no new strategies to overcome the deficiencies labor law imposes in the US. I’ve seen social media play an increasing role in communication between trades as the Walmart actions show.

    Harnessing social media to connect the 12.5 millions members here and building solidarity worldwide makes it possible to conduct concerted boycotts on a scale never before seen. THIS is something that can be done right now. An online organization to CONNECT all these people does not yet exist.

    I also think US labor MUST return to it’s role in transforming society from the bottom up through improving the lives of it’s members. We can do this by finding answers to the problems that face our members families- commuting, childcare, wellness and education are ALL issues we have side-stepped in favor of getting friendly voices elected. That we always wind up on the short end of the legislative stick is accepted.

    We are at the same density, membership-wise, as we were at the turn of the 20th century. I know there will always be a need for us- we just need new strategies until we can change the current playing field . Please think about this and help us find a way to overcome the resistance to change that we face, inside and outside of the host of unions we have joined.

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