Why the Repeal of Anti-Union Laws in Michigan Boosts Workers Nationwide

Yves here. As much as the overall picture for worker rights seems grim, the flip side is concerted pushback is finally producing some reversals of long-standing cuts in rights, as we can see with more and more successful unionization drives. The big break in Michigan of repealing anti-union “right to work” laws is another step forward.

By Tom Conway, the international president of the United Steelworkers Union (USW). Produced by the Independent Media Institute

The United Steelworkers (USW) mounted tireless battles for fair trade and other lifelines that helped to keep McLouth Steel open during the 1980s, enabling Jay McMurran and thousands of other Michigan workers to raise families and build pensions amid one of the nation’s worst economic crises.

Recognizing that other workers need the same kind of strength behind them, McMurran resolved to fight back when Republicans rammed union-gutting “right-to-work” (RTW) legislation through the state legislature in 2012.

He and other union supporters and their allies worked relentlessly for years to oust the corporate toadies and elect pro-worker lawmakers instead. Their long struggle culminated in victory on March 21, 2023, when new Democratic majorities in the House and Senate voted to repeal the deceptively named RTW laws, restoring workers’ full power to bargain fair contracts and safe working conditions.

Democratic Governor Gretchen Whitmer has since signed the legislation, which represents the latest in a string of victories for workers mobilizing to build strength across the country.

No one in America is ever forced to join a union, and no union wants workers to join against their will. Yet a union is legally obligated to serve all workers in its bargaining unit.

Many states allow unions to charge nonmembers a small fee to help cover the costs of representation. But in some states, RTW laws pushed by corporations and anti-worker groups enable nonmembers to receive union services for free.

These laws intentionally divide workers, erode the solidarity that’s the foundation of union strength, and starve unions of the resources needed for effective bargaining, training, and other essential purposes—all to the boss’s benefit.

“‘Right to work’ is simply a union-busting scam that the Republicans dress up as ‘choice,’” observed McMurran, a longtime USW member who worked at McLouth Steel for 27 years.

“It weakens the local union,” he said. “It weakens every worker’s position when you get into collective bargaining, when you get into grievance hearings, when you get into arbitrations. The boss knows your weaknesses, and he exploits them.”

It’s no surprise that workers burdened by RTW laws make significantly lower wages than their counterparts in other states. They’re also less likely to have employer-provided health insurance and retirement plans than other workers.

At the same time, workers in RTW states face a higher risk of dying on the job because they lack the strong, unified voice needed to fight for workplace safety.

“Everything I have is because I was a Steelworker,” said McMurran, who recalled that unshakable solidarity among his coworkers not only ensured good contracts and safe working conditions but also kept their employer in business.

“The steel mill that I came out of was in financial trouble for 13 years, and the Steelworkers fought to keep the place open nearly every day of those 13 years,” said McMurran, citing the busloads of USW members who converged on Washington, D.C., in the 1980s to demand support for the company. “We actually kept the place going so more people qualified for pensions and employer-sponsored health care. We did some good things there.”

Sadly, despite successes like that, Michigan’s GOP legislators conspired with corporations and other anti-union interests to undermine worker power.

McMurran was among the 10,000 protesters who packed the statehouse in a last-ditch effort to stop Republicans from pushing RTW through a lame-duck session during the 2012 holiday season.

Union members lost that skirmish but won the war.

After Republicans passed the legislation over the protesters’ objections, McMurran said, workers and their allies launched a “long-game” plan to reverse it.

Workers helped pass a 2018 referendum that took redistricting out of the hands of partisan political hacks and put fair-minded citizens in charge of the process. New, equitably drawn legislative districts enabled voters to elect pro-worker lawmakers willing to represent them rather than corporations.

And those pro-worker majorities, in turn, speedily acted to end RTW. For McMurran, the victory highlighted both the power of collective action and the importance of electing the right people to office.

Workers in other states also are beating back RTW amid growing support for organized labor and a pandemic that underscored Americans’ need for good wages, affordable health care, and the other benefits that unions deliver.

For example, even as Republicans in Michigan united behind a failed defense of RTW, several GOP legislators in Montana helped to kill RTW legislation in that state in February 2023. The opponents included Republican Senator Jason Small, a member of the International Brotherhood of Boilermakers, who described his 26 years of union membership as a “heck of an opportunity” in his life.

“It has nothing to do with red or blue. It’s what’s right for people and their families,” explained Curtis Schomer, vice president of USW Local 11-0001.

Schomer, who ran unsuccessfully as a Republican candidate for the Montana House in 2022, repeatedly traveled to Helena, the state capital, to rally against RTW and testify against the harmful legislation.

He noted that a strong union gives him and his 1,300 coworkers at the Sibanye-Stillwater mining complex the power to take safety concerns directly to management and address problems immediately. In a dangerous industry like mining, he noted, that kind of voice saves lives and ensures workers return home safely at the end of their shifts.

Schomer expects pro-business interests to continue to push RTW in Montana. But he predicted those efforts will fall flat in communities that not only have a rich legacy of labor activism but also continue to appreciate the benefits unions provide.

“Our unions do a lot for our communities,” Schomer said. “They especially do a lot on workplace safety. People see that.”

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  1. some guy

    I remember commenting a while ago that if the Democrats of Michigan were genuine Democrats in the good-old sense, they would repeal Right To Work once they got all three branches of Michigan State Government.

    And they have repealed Right To Work in Michigan. So they are real, even if they are not great or wonderful in the widest possible sense. So if they stay real or get realer, they might show an opportunity for citizens to install other get-real Democrats into other State governments. Perhaps such State Democrats can overcome their misplaced love and loyalty for the National Democratic Party, at least in reality if not in appearance, and begin functioning as Real Democrat Parties . . . Real Democrats of Michigan, Real Democrats of ( your State here), etc. And they can begin either declintaminating the National DemParty or they can form a parallel and superseding Party to be thought of as Union of State Democrat Parties, or some such thing.

    It is an avenue to be pursued by people who believe in the viability of that avenue, even as other people pursue other avenues, or no avenue at all.

    1. Carla

      “declintaminating” — love that word!

      I hope the Real Democrats will use sortition to make their platform and organizational decisions.

      1. some guy

        Feel free to use it. Maybe you will be the one who successfully injects it into the language.

        Here’s another word-series in case you might like them too.
        Clintonoma. Malignant Clintonoma. Metastatic Malignant Clintonoma.

  2. Alice X

    Now if union members and their labor management would realize that they would be better off with a national health care system, they could negotiate contracts that focus on their particular situations. The corporations understand this, auto production in Canada has some $1,000 per car advantage due to the national health system. We as a society would certainly be better off.

    1. Bjarne

      Yeah, it would be great as long as the national healthcare law was written (and respected) so the govt cannot force treatments on us, since “they” are paying the bill. You know, the way they used medicare/medicaid funding to force local hospitals to enforce their misguided measures over the pandemic. I’m starting to get the Tea Party’s mantra of “keep your government hands off my medicare”.

  3. Starry Gordon

    I would think that “Right to Work” laws would be unconstitutional, since they obviously interfere with the making and enforcement of contracts.

  4. Lex

    The impact goes beyond union workers. The major contract issued for the state DTMB had already adopted the rule but it was made official this week. Any contracts that have state funding must pay prevailing wages, so there’s no monetary gain by hiring non union contractors. This is particularly important in contracting for construction or demolition services where the state will always award to the low bidder.

    And state money is the grease that makes development work. Private developers get brownfield grant money all the time (often the whole plan is dependent on it). AFAIK, that will make all those projects prevailing wage contracts too. To be fair, construction and demolition is one of the most heavily unionized economic sectors, at least when you’re talking about large commercial work. But this really benefits smaller, local firm workers who get a subcontracting piece of big projects.

  5. Clark Landwehr

    As the demographic contraction (collapse) gathers steam in the US. Prospects for workers and unions should improve. We shouldn’t be surprised.

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