by 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.