The Building Tradesman Newspaper

Friday, April 19, 2013

Right-to-work law is hardly a last gasp for unions in Michigan

By The Building Tradesman

(By Mike Thibault, President, Marquette County Labor Council)

So-called Right to Work is now law in our state. This is a dark moment for the Michigan labor movement, but we have overcome far worse. I refuse to believe that the descendants of the 1913 Copper Strike, one-hundred years later, would accept collective bargaining restrictions or the lower wages, benefits and safety standards that go along with such policies. Working people will organize and rise.

That fact is already evident in Gov. Snyder’s falling poll numbers. Workers across the state will keep RTW fresh in their minds heading into the 2014 elections. The way that Snyder suddenly snuck these policies onto his “agenda” during December ‘s lame duck legislative session was cowardly and dishonest.

Michigan’s Open Meetings Act is supposed to guarantee citizens and journalists access to the legislative process. This basic democratic practice is especially important when the bills being discussed are divisive. Yet, RTW passed without public comment while people were locked out of our Capitol Building. There is a lawsuit pending to address how the laws were passed, and there is a second case challenging the constitutionality of the laws themselves.

While the courts deliberate and we gear up for the next election cycle, RTW is temporarily the law of the land. As such it is important to understand what this law actually does.

RTW is not about individual choice. Mandatory union membership or political contributions were already illegal in Michigan. Flowery language about workplace freedom is being used to mask this attempt to destroy workplace democracy.

When miners and other workers democratically chose to form a union, everybody shares in the benefits. In fact, unions have a legal obligation to represent everyone equally under a collective bargaining agreement; therefore, everyone should pay their fair share. Right to work allows some people to enjoy the advantages of a union contract without pulling their own weight. It is like skipping out on your taxes while demanding better roads, schools and public safety protections. This free-lunch mentality is designed to weaken the voice of workers on the job.

Many union workers use that voice to advocate for the community members they serve. Teachers bargain over class sizes, access to training and the materials that help our children learn. Nurses negotiate for lower patient ratios and other measures that improve patient outcomes.

And let’s not forget that in the mines, a well-enforced union contract can make the difference between our loved ones coming home from work or not. Everyone who is protected should chip in to support that enforcement.

The lame duck legislative push for RTW in Michigan was driven by corporate special interests. They pressured the governor and Republicans to weaken the voice of workers so that they could profit by lowering wages, reducing benefits and rolling back safety standards. They promised jobs in return, but there is no evidence that they will do anything other than line their own deep pockets.

This is not the first politically motivated attack that working families have suffered during the Snyder administration. Education professionals have been battling the governor and other extremists in Lansing ever since his first budget ripped a gaping hole in school funding in order to create billions in tax breaks for similar corporate special interests. Senior citizens have had their pensions taxed and the working poor have lost most of the Earned Income Tax Credit, and for what? Again, the job creation that we were promised never materialized.

It comes down to this: working people just can’t trust Governor Snyder to represent their interests. RTW is just one particularly egregious example.

While I am not happy about recent developments, RTW is an obstacle that we can overcome. Rank and file members will continue to do the hard work of building and rebuilding the middle class. This is done one union and one contract at a time. It is only fair that those members would expect co-workers who benefit from collective bargaining to contribute to the process. Working people are resilient, and when attacked we pull together.

The pushback which will ultimately restore full collective bargaining freedom will come from working people statewide. One way or another, RTW will not stand. Union members are already talking to their coworkers and organizing their workplaces. Michigan workers have come too far through their labor movement to regard RTW as anything more than an unjust but temporary setback.

It may take time, but solidarity will trump Right to Work.

(Thibault is also a business representative for the Michigan Building and Construction Trades Council. This first appeared in the April 7 Marquette Mining Journal).