right-to-work in Michigan

a day or two ago, the state of Michigan — the cradle, many say, of the American labor movement — rolled out some right-to-work laws. have you heard about right-to-work laws? I’d argue that they’re kind of opaque things; “right to work” sounds pretty straightforward, but, really, the name is just window dressing.

I want to get this down so that I understand it correctly: right-to-work laws makes union dues strictly voluntary. while federal law requires that the wages and benefits a union negotiates with an employer be extended to all employees in a workplace — whether they’re union members or not — right-to-work laws scrap the requirement that non-union workers pay the union a fee for the fruits of those negotiations.

that’s bad for unions. unions need money to be part of the public debate, to wrestle with unfriendly politicians and back those that support labor’s agenda. in the past, they would physically apply leverage with picket lines … but you don’t see too many picket lines anymore because public opinion doesn’t like strikes, and ultimately these are battles for public opinion that unions now fight, about complex, sweeping subjects like economic morality. and public opinion doesn’t just turn on a dime; you’ve got to have a string of victories to get anything going. but with emptier coffers (a fundamental purpose of right-to-work laws) unions will have an even harder time fighting their battles.

anyway, organized labor just took another shot to the chops. and depending on your politics or on your view of economic morality (an admittedly loaded term that I just made up), you might think that’s a good thing. or, hell, you might not even have an opinion; a lot of liberals that I know don’t seem to care about the health of organized labor, and if they do they don’t see any benefit to unionism at all.

this is their prerogative. but, as this academic puts it:

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.