Battling the right to work scam

This past Labor Day, trade unionists were outraged to wake up and read an editorial in The Detroit News arguing for a “right-to-work” law in Michigan.

Right-to-work bills failed to garner majority support in the Michigan Legislature last year, but the editorial in the state’s leading business newspaper signaled that the anti-labor crowd is not giving up. Now it is putting its energies into collecting what will have to be almost 500,000 signatures to place a right-to-work initiative on the ballot this November. In response, the state AFL-CIO has started a campaign to educate union members and the public to speak out against what, in every sense of the word, is an attack on the state’s working families.

“Right-to-work” is the second far-right ballot initiative that Michigan has had to deal with in the last two years, and there are parallels between them. In 2006, passage of the cleverly named anti-affirmative-action Michigan Civil Rights Initiative was a setback for democracy and equality.

Many years ago, Dr. Martin Luther King aptly pointed out that those “spewing anti-Negro epithets from one mouth and anti-labor propaganda from the other mouth” are, almost always, “a twin-headed creature.”

A look at the National Right to Work Committee shows this to be true. This committee is part of an anti-labor, anti-civil-rights, anti-democratic network involving organizations such as the Heritage Foundation, American Enterprise Institute, Sarah Scaife Foundation, and Michigan’s own conservative think tank, the Mackinac Center for Public Policy.

With Michigan hit hard by plant closings, layoffs and budget shortfalls, how much worse can things get for the working class? Plenty worse, if this measure gets through.

“Right-to-work” is like “No money down but pay through the nose later,” or that slick used car salesman trying to unload a lemon on you. It has nothing to do with making sure everyone has a job. It is nothing but a big business spin to weaken unions and to make it harder for workers to unify to fight for decent wages, benefits and working conditions and, yes, the right to a decent job.

What the corporations hate more than anything is having to deal with the working class pulling together through their unions. Remember, without unions, all power is with the boss. When you try to “bargain” as an individual, your wages and benefits are on a one-way train to nowhere.

A “right to work” law essentially means this: while the union fights for benefits you receive, you, the worker, are encouraged by the state not to pay dues for the union’s work in winning the benefits you enjoy, and employers are encouraged by the state to pressure you and your fellow workers into undermining the union. The workforce becomes split and the union’s finances and ability to function are impaired.

One Detroit activist defined it this way: the “right to work for corporate greed.” That’s one reason it’s backed by the National Association of Manufacturers and the Chamber of Commerce.

Why do workers join unions? It’s not because they are coerced. They join because union workers, across the board, earn about 30 percent more than nonunion workers and are more likely to have health care and retirement benefits.

Union contracts also help nonunion workers, who see higher wages and better benefits when they are part of a union-dense labor force.

In 2006, eight of the 10 states with the best rankings for health of their residents were free bargaining states, while nine of the 10 worst were “right-to-work.”

Median household income in the 22 states that have “right-to-work” laws is $5,900 less than in those that don’t. Michigan workers’ yearly incomes average $7,601 more than that of workers in “right-to-work” states. It is figures like these which explain why corporate interests in Indiana, Kentucky, Missouri, West Virginia, Colorado and more have right-to-work legislation pending.

Labor is a target of the right wing because it fights for the whole class, union and nonunion alike. In Washington and in state capitals, unions lobby for workplace safety, consumer protection, progressive taxation, more aid to our schools and much more. Labor is also in the right-wing crosshairs because it sees how working people have suffered at the hands of the Republicans and is working to “sweep” them out of office this November.

Finally, labor’s vision is becoming more international. The AFL-CIO’s initiative, last December, to bring together unions from over 60 countries must have brought sleepless nights to many CEOs. Fighting for workers here at home is bad enough, but joining hands with them around the world? That’s downright subversive. Why not try to break that union power with phony “right to work” laws?

But for working class America, building unions and unity at home and building unity among workers around the world is something to get excited about. Corporate “right to work” scams are nothing but a downer.

John Rummel (jrummel@cpusa.org) is Michigan organizer for the Communist Party USA.