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labor `Can We have a Liberal America Without Unions? History Says No.' - The Right-to-Work Coup in Michigan

Labor historian Nelson Lichtenstein looks at the role of labor unions in our country's history - there has not been any progress when unions have been weakend.

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Brad Plumer interviews Nelson Lichtenstein
December 12, 2012
On Tuesday, Michigan became the 24th state in the nation to enact a "right-to-work" law designed to weaken labor unions. Under the new rules, employees in unionized workplaces will no longer be required to pay unions for the cost of being represented. (Workers could already choose not to join the union.) Protests flared throughout the day, but in the end Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder (R) signed the bill.
Why does this matter? To get a better sense for the history of these right-to-work laws - and what they portend for the future of organized labor - I called Nelson Lichtenstein, a labor historian at University of California, Santa Barbara. His basic take: These laws drive a stake through the concept of solidarity, which is essential for unions to thrive.
Brad Plumer: Where did these "right-to-work" laws come from? And when did conservatives start using them in order to weaken labor unions? Walk me through the history here.
Nelson Lichtenstein: Go back to the 1930s, when the Wagner Act was created to allow the government to certify voluntary unions as the exclusive bargaining agent for a workplace. There was one thing the Wagner Act didn't say anything about. If you're the exclusive representation in a workplace, what about workers who don't want to join? And employers could be quite clever in winning workers away from the union.
So John L. Lewis and other unionists said we need to have a union shop. The employer hires the worker, and after they get the job, they have to join the union. (This was different from the closed shop, where if you want a job, you go to the union first.) Companies resisted this idea bitterly. But then World War II comes along. Unions are going to be patriotic, accept a no-strike pledge, let the government set wage levels. And in return, the government said, okay, we'll give you the union shop. And union membership went up by millions of workers.
But at this very moment, conservatives were already mobilizing against the New Deal and unions. They were saying, we want to pass laws that will make a collective bargaining contract illegal if joining a union becomes a condition of employment.
BP: So already in the 1940s you're seeing a right-to-work movement form-conservatives want rules that forbid employers and unions from agreeing to a union shop arrangement.
NL: Right, the language on this goes all the way back to the 19th century. The guy who invented the term "right-to-work," I think that was invented in the Progressive Era. What's remarkable is that anti-union discourse hasn't changed over the years. It doesn't matter whether unions are weak or strong. The talk is always about union bosses, about coercion, about how there should be freedom in the workplace.
BP: But when did right-to-work laws start emerging in the states?
NL: In 1947, the Taft-Hartley Act is passed by a conservative Congress, and one of the things it does is to authorize states to pass right-to-work laws. The Southern and Mountain states quickly pass these laws.
Now the anti-union impulse actually reaches a climax and a failure in 1958. You had the National Right to Work Committee, formed in 1955 by Southern textile and lumber interests. And in 1958 they put right-to-work laws up for a referendum in six states, including California and Ohio. And they failed. You saw a rebirth of liberalism that year.
BP: The right-to-work movement went dormant at that point?
NL: Not completely. At that point, the National Right to Work Committee shifted its strategy from trying to pass right-to- work laws in the states. Instead, it went to court to try to weaken existing union contracts, first in the private sector, then in the public sector.
It's interesting, when all those Democrats went to see [Michigan Gov. Rick] Snyder the other day, they told him that even under current rules, workers in unionized workplaces don't have to join the union, they just have to pay the costs of bargaining. Well, where did that come from? It was due to a legal victory by the National Right to Work Committee, the Beck case [in 1988]. The Supreme Court agreed - nonunion workers don't have to pay dues, they just have to pay fees to cover bargaining costs. It weakened the soul of the union, which is solidarity.
BP: The argument against these laws seems to be: If workers in a unionized workplace can opt out of a union - if they don't even have to pay fees for the union that's representing them in negotiations - then solidarity vanishes and the union is weakened.
NL: Go all the way back to the 19th century, from 1877 onward, when there were strikes and violence. Why was there violence? Because the only way unions could work is if they deprived the employers of labor. Workers set up picket lines, the government would send in the police or militias or the army. And the whole principle of solidarity was that the union had to be united to succeed.
Solidarity isn't a purely altruistic concept. Unions have to be a combat organization, ready to fight the boss. That means there is an element of coercion involved. It's like taxes. The price of civilization is taxes. The price of unionism is solidarity. And, yes, that does involve coercing people to contribute to the union. Unions are not like the NRA or the Sierra Club, they're not purely voluntary organizations. They were given a slice of state authority in order to solve the problem of industrial violence.
BP: Except that most unions don't even strike nowadays, correct?
NL: Right, the strike is almost non-existent today. It's hard to argue that unions today need solidarity to make sure the factory stays shut down. But what unions do is politics. They need money, staff. they're the ones hustling for votes. That's where the battlefield is being fought. And the money to do that comes from dues. When you don't have that, unions shrink.
BP: Back to the history. The National Right to Work Committee goes back to the courts, winning victories there. But lately we've seen Republican politicians renew the battle against unions at the state level. Indiana, Wisconsin, Ohio, now Michigan.
NL: With the decline of union numbers and the rise of a certain type of libertarianism, conservatives have returned to their old strategy, especially in the last two or three years.
And here's the devilish logic of this right-to-work strategy. When times are tough, the union can't win many concessions. So then the union shop gets eliminated. And a lot of workers say, why should I keep paying my dues? And that weakens unions even further.
BP: It's a downward spiral. Now, the fact that a right-to-work law just passed in Michigan, home of the United Autoworkers, isn't that symbolically significant?
NL: Yes, though the UAW, which had 1.5 million workers in 1975, is now down to just 400,000 - and only about 200,000 are autoworkers. It was already shrinking, thanks to transplants, China, automation. These days, the state with the highest union density is actually New York, with its hospitals and the public sector. Even in Michigan many of the unions are now in the public sector.
BP: Do these right-to-work laws ever get repealed?
NL: Indiana did. It had a right-to-work law in 1957, but it was so unpopular that it was reversed about eight years later. But there aren't many cases.
BP: And are there other state-level strategies to restrict unions?
NL: In California, there are various initiatives that get on the ballot every five years-it was Proposition 32 this year- that, one way or another, restrict how unions can spend money. Unions always mobilize and defeat these initiatives. But if you're a clever billionaire, it's a good strategy. Unions are spending all this money defeating these propositions, but not spending money on organizing or X or Y or Z.
BP: So unions don't really have a good response to this state- level opposition?
NL: Unions will have to defend themselves. But here's a question. There have been hundreds of thousands of people flocking to Madison, Wisconsin, or Lansing to fight over this. The meaning of solidarity's what's at stake here. It approaches the sacred. But we don't hear that. The language of union leaders is that they're defending the middle class. But it's more than that. Workers are defending a concept, a sentiment, and a fundamental moral value.
BP: One of the arguments in favor of right-to-work laws is that unions will just have to prove their worth to members. don't some unions manage to do this? Nevada is a right-to-work state with some thriving unions.
NL: Yeah, the Culinary union in Las Vegas. If you're a vigorous union, that's true. A lot of ethnic-based unions still show strong solidarity. Some places that can be done.
Alternatively, there's the Our Walmart campaign. They know they're not going to get a union in Walmart, so they're trying to create that sense of solidarity outside of the Wagner Act and the [National Labor Relations Board]. But that's very difficult to do, because you need victories to sustain morale.
BP: And it doesn't look like very many national Democrats are willing to fight hard for unions anymore.
NL: No, and here I'd add a criticism of Obama. The Obama campaign made a strategic decision that it wanted to win in non-union North Carolina, in non-union Virginia. So Obama didn't fly into Madison, Wisconsin during the recall of [Gov. Scott] Walker. Obama's campaign was not a referendum of unionism.
And I'd add a larger meta-historical point. This is the experiment America's now having. Obama has just won re- election. A liberal president is popular. But juxtapose that with what just happened in Michigan. So the question is, can you have a liberal, progressive America without unions? History says no. For 200 years the existence of the union movement has been wedded to the rise of democracy, to the rise of liberalism. We saw this here, in South Korea, in Spain, in Africa. But now America is moving toward an experiment with whether it can have liberalism without unions. I think the answer is no. But we'll see.
[Interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
[Brad Plumer is a reporter at the Washington Post writing about domestic policy, particularly energy and environmental issues.]
[Thanks to William Tabb for sending this to Portside.]
by Nelson Lichtenstein
December 13, 2012
Michigan Governor Rick Snyder's decision to sign a right-to- work law is just the latest battle in Midwestern Republican legislators' convulsive campaign to eviscerate union political clout. Lansing, Michigan, now follows Madison, Wisconsin, Columbus, Ohio, and Indianapolis, Indiana, as a state capital flooded by union partisans - in a spirited, but vain, effort to forestall these laws.
Unions stand at the core of the Democratic coalition today. They are the last organizations remaining on the liberal side that can effectively appeal to white, working-class men in the Rust Belt swing states. They were crucial to President Barack Obama's victory there.
So whatever the opposition and the shady legislative tactics, Snyder, his billionaire backers and the rest of the Michigan GOP made the cold political calculation: Break unions' political power now by stripping them of the ability to raise the funds needed to hire staff, mobilize voters and keep up liberal pressure on state and local officials in the months after the election. Even as Citizens United allows many conservatives to raise unlimited funds, Democratic Party prospects are likely to plummet - turning Michigan as steadily red as Texas.
But there is a lot more going on here than partisan politics. Obama was not quite right when he told a Michigan factory audience on Monday that right-to-work laws have little to do with economics and "everything to do with politics."
Partisan wrangling, even over hot button issues like voter ID laws, has never been enough to generate the passions that compelled tens of thousands of rank-and-file union members to surge into Madison, Lansing and other Midwest state capitals where Republican legislatures were poised to pass these laws. Our highly charged politics also can't explain conservative politicians' determination to use unorthodox, perhaps even unconstitutional, tactics to rush these laws through.
Indeed, liberalism seems to have won a second wind, and Obama and the Democrats swept Michigan and most other Midwestern states. So why do we now find the opponents of trade unionism so emboldened?
Conservatives argue that a right-to-work law can convince industry not to flee the state, while liberals denounce the new statute as a threat to the middle class. Economists have used up a lot of computer power parsing a multitude of inconclusive answers.
But none of this explains the polarization or the passions that the fight over these right-to-work laws has unleashed. That's because this conflict is about something far bigger - the meaning of solidarity, a way of feeling and thinking about the world of work that is the basis not just of the union idea, but of a humane cooperative society.
"The most important word in the language of the working class is `solidarity,'" declared the long-shore union leader Harry Bridges more than 70 years ago, during the turbulent era that thrust West Coast dockworkers on the path to becoming the best-paid, blue-collar workers in America.
Walter Reuther, the legendary president of the once powerful United Automobile Workers, put this in near-religious terms. "There is no power in the world," Reuther said, "that can stop the forward march of free men and women when they are joined in the solidarity of human brotherhood."
To understand how right-to-work laws stand in deadly opposition to union solidarity, look back on the violent industrial era that began with the bloody railroad strike of 1877 and extended well into the 20th century. Strike violence in those years was omnipresent, because a conservative judiciary declared union solidarity, in effect, a conspiracy against the public. Unions, the courts often ruled, were a racket that extorted wages and jobs from hapless employers - though these employers  were as gigantic and  powerful as the Pennsylvania Railroad and U.S. Steel.
Local and state officials, backed by the courts, sent police and the militia in to break up picket lines and protect strike breakers - unionists called them "scabs" - whose right to work was threatened by union efforts to solidify the workforce against the employer. Indeed, the phrase "right to work" was coined in 1902 by market-minded Progressives, who found any institution that sought to thwart the free play of supply and demand - be they trusts, monopolies or trade unions - inherently corrupt.
The New Deal's 1935 Wagner Act was designed to civilize the world of work by strengthening unions in order to facilitate the "friendly adjustment of industrial disputes." With the National Labor Relations Board, the Wagner Act "certified" a union as the exclusive bargaining agent for a group of workers.
That was not enough, however, to ensure that these new unions could withstand a hostile employer - either when times were tough, as during the Roosevelt recession of 1938, or during World War II, when the warfare state set wages and the unions gave up the right to strike.
So the government encouraged the spread of the union shop. This institutionalized solidarity by mandating that as a condition of employment a worker had to join the union and pay union dues. To most unionists, these requirements were like taxes and citizenship - crucial to insure strength and unity against any foe.
That worked well during the great postwar boom. But many employers and politicians, especially those in the Jim Crow, low-wage South, hated the new power of the unions. Especially if it even hinted at solidarity between black and white - on the job or off. The 1947 Taft-Hartley Act gave states the right to pass right-to-work laws that made the union shop illegal.
In the South and Mountain West, conservatives jumped at this opportunity. State legislators often declared as a rationale their support for workers oppressed by "labor bosses." "Pot- bellied Yankees with big cigars," read one Dixie handbill introduced into the Congressional Record in 1953, will make whites "share the same restroom with Negroes and work side by side with them. It comes right out of Russia."
A National Right to Work Committee, funded by the most retrograde textile, oil and plantation interests, tried to extend these anti-union laws to the North. That failed for many decades. But the committee's lawyers did everything they could to chip away at the institutional solidarity this is central to union power.
They have not only fought the union shop, but also the capacity of labor organizations to use member dues in the realm of politics. This is now the crucial arena for capital- labor conflict, because the strike weapon is virtually dead.
With union density in the private sector now at less than 7 percent, most unions are far too small and isolated to win a showdown with a determined corporation. As in the early 20th century, there are too many potential strike-breakers, too many non-union shops and too many unsympathetic public officials to make it possible for most work stoppages to affect the business balance sheet of any particular company.
Thus the union turn to politics and the right-wing effort to blunt that labor weapon. Obamacare, higher taxes on the rich, infrastructure spending, an extension of unemployment benefits: All these public policies would help working Americans. But, as Scott Hagerstrom, the Michigan director of the Koch brothers-backed Americas for Prosperity, told the 2011 Conservative Political Action Conference, "We fight these battles on taxes and regulations, but really, what we would like to see is to take the unions out at the knees so they don't have the resources to fight these battles."
Hagerstrom later expanded on this to a Salon reporter, denouncing "the damage that the union culture, the union bosses, have done."
Enactment of the Michigan right-to-work law is a serious defeat not only for the unions but for the very idea of social solidarity. It promises an evisceration of union political and bargaining influence in a state once ground zero for labor power.
Can the liberalism mobilized by Obama's re-election sustain itself in the absence of a vibrant union movement? The history of this nation and that of virtually every other Western democracy argues to the contrary.
These events in Michigan have now put us on the path to a most dangerous experiment.
[Nelson Lichtenstein is MacArthur Foundation Chair in History at the University of California, Santa Barbara, where he directs the Center for the Study of Work, Labor and Democracy. He is the co-author and co-editor of "The Right and Labor in America: Politics, Ideology, and Imagination." ]
[Thanks to the author for sending this to Portside.]