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Vol. 76/No. 48      December 31, 2012

‘Right-to-work’ laws can’t stop
fight ahead to build unions
(lead article, commentary)
The so-called right-to-work laws passed Dec. 11 in Michigan are among many attacks on unions today and should be opposed by working people everywhere. At the same time, these and other government anti-labor measures are not to blame for the weak and weakening state of our unions.

Signed into law the same day by Gov. Richard Snyder, the laws ban contracts that require automatic deduction of union dues from the checks of all workers at unionized workplaces. (Cops and firefighters are exempt.) Thousands of unionists demonstrated inside and around the state capitol as the votes were taken.

The Michigan vote follows a similar action in Indiana earlier this year. This puts “right-to-work” laws on the books in 24 states.

Many conservative political writers gloated over the results. “The most famously unionized state, birthplace of the United Auto Workers, royalty of the American working class, became right-to-work,” Washington Post columnist Charles Krauthammer wrote Dec. 13. “The heyday of the sovereign private-sector union is gone.”

Advocates of the law claim the issue is the “right” of workers to refuse to pay union dues. But many commentaries supporting the law after the vote focused on how it will weaken unions, drive down wages and make Michigan “more attractive” to investment.

The bill’s “public policy” statement says “strikes and lockouts and other forms of industrial strife, regardless of where the merits of the controversy lie, are forces productive ultimately of economic waste.” It argues for “mediation of such disputes under the guidance and supervision of a governmental agency.”

“Let’s be honest,” Krauthammer says. “Right-to-work laws do weaken unions. And de-unionization can lead to lower wages.”

Right-to-work laws arose as part of the anti-labor, anti-communist offensive in the years after World War II. The Taft-Hartley Act, adopted in 1947, opened the door to state governments outlawing “closed shop” unions. Initially such laws were passed in the South, where the refusal of labor officials to take on Jim Crow segregation had cut across the working-class unity needed to organize unions.

Since the onset of the worldwide crisis of capitalism, more and more politicians have advanced “right-to-work” as part of broader attacks on the working class.

The Michigan law was held up as an example by Morgan Stanley bank analyst Adam Jonas in a phone hook-up with investors, Reuters reported Dec. 11. Capitalists that invested in the auto industry were worried the United Auto Workers would try to recover concessions agreed to in 2007 when the contract expires in 2015, and that “all the good work since the crisis would be chipped away over time,” Jonas said. “Moving to right-to-vote in Michigan would go some distance towards calming those fears.”

After his election in 2010, Governor Snyder and other right-to-work advocates were hesitant to push the issue, fearing working-class opposition. According to Reuters, there was agreement from bosses and union officials not to “rock the boat.”

But last year officials in the Service Employees International Union and UAW decided to push for a referendum seeking to bar right-to-vote laws in the state constitution. The ballot measure was defeated.

This emboldened union opponents to push for rapid adoption of a right-to-work law and convinced Snyder to sign it.

The Socialist Workers Party called on workers to vote for the pro-union amendment to the state constitution last fall. “Not because restrictive laws are the reason our unions are getting weaker, a rationalization often heard from union officials,” James Harris, SWP presidential candidate at the time said, but as part of “laying the groundwork to transform our unions into effective working-class combat organizations against the bosses’ deepening attacks.”

Union officials did not advance the ballot measure as part of mobilizing workers to take on boss attacks, organize the unorganized and champion social struggles in the interests of the working class.

To the contrary, the officials’ campaign was part and parcel of a strategy of relying on “friends” in the Democratic Party to support laws that help maximize dues collection in the absence of a class struggle perspective that could inspire more workers to organize and join unions. The ballot measure was put forward by the same labor officialdom that has for decades sought common ground with bosses to avoid and limit strikes and other union battles, while supporting some of the same capitalist politicians who are helping lead the assault.

The response of the leaders of the UAW in the face of the auto bosses’ attacks on workers over the past decade is a case in point. In 2007, UAW officials pushed through a two-tier wage plan, undercutting the unity of autoworkers. In 2011, they agreed to “flexible work rules” and elimination of the jobs bank program that had provided laid-off workers with continued wages and benefits. At every step, they accommodated the bosses’ need for profitability in an unholy alliance to save “American jobs.”

At the same time, bluster, bombast and thuggish behavior are more and more employed as a substitute for effectively organized resistance. This was the case when pro-union protestors in Michigan tore down a large tent put up by the anti-labor group Americans for Prosperity during the Dec. 11 protest. This action only damaged the ability of unions to garner needed support among working people—organized and unorganized—for a fight that is objectively in their interests.

Far from unions being “outdated,” the fight to wield their power is needed more than ever.

And no anti-labor law can prevent the use of union power when workers decide to fight or the inevitable class battles ahead that will lay the basis to strengthen and transform our unions into instruments of class struggle—and schools for revolution.
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