Michigan “Right to Work” and the Folly of Bourgeois Democracy

The working class and the employing class have nothing in common. There can be no peace so long as hunger and want are found among millions of the working people and the few, who make up the employing class, have all the good things of life.

Between these two classes a struggle must go on until the workers of the world organize as a class, take possession of the means of production, abolish the wage system, and live in harmony with the Earth. –Industrial Workers of the World

On Tuesday Dec. 11, Governor Rick Snyder of Michigan officially signed into law the bills that will turn Michigan into the twenty-fourth “Right to Work” state in the U.S. Yes, Michigan, home of the Flint Sit-Down Strike and the United Auto Workers, is now a worker’s paradise like Georgia, Mississippi, Alabama and a host of (mostly southern) states! Until recently, Snyder denied that he would push for the passage of this law. But, as the Lansing State Journal reported, “Snyder signed the two historic bills just after 5 p.m. Tuesday, a few hours after the state House approved the controversial legislation that makes it illegal to require public and private workers to pay union dues or join a union as a condition of employment.” So why did Governor Snyder decide to support legislation that he previously wrote off as “divisive?” Why would he do this in a state that still has relatively high union membership (about 17%) compared to other states? Theories abound, of course. However, it seems likely that the passage of the legislation, which occurred during a lame duck session, was in retaliation for labor’s attempt to make collective bargaining a constitutional right in Michigan, via a referendum called “Proposal 2” (The referendum was defeated in the November 2012 election). Snyder himself stated, “I don’t believe we would’ve been standing here in this time frame if it wasn’t for Proposal 2 moving ahead.”

“Right to work” Propaganda and the influence of oligarchs

As in Wisconsin, the assault on collective bargaining was supported by Americans For Prosperity, which has received substantial support from the infamous Koch Brothers. Michigander Dick Devos, son of Amway founder Richard Devos, has also reportedly been a major player. With the support of oligarchs and front groups, Michigan Republicans devised a delightfully Orwellian campaign to hamper unions while empowering employers…and Republicans. The phrases “Right to Work” and “Freedom to Work” are themselves completely disingenuous. Obviously one is not entitled to a job in a “Right to Work” state, so what is the truth behind the PR spin? Writing for Truthout in 2011, economist Dean Baker explained the distortions behind “Right to Work” sloganeering:

Right to work” is a great name from the standpoint of proponents, just like the term “death tax” is effective for opponents of the estate tax, but it has nothing to do with the issue at hand. It is widely believed that in the absence of right-to-work laws workers can be forced to join a union. This is not true. Workers at any workplace always have the option as to whether or not to join a union.

Right-to-work laws prohibit contracts that require that all the workers who benefit from union representation to pay for union representation. In states without right-to-work laws, unions often sign contracts that require that all the workers in a bargaining unit pay a representation fee to the union that represents the bargaining unit.

The logic is straightforward. When a union is recognized as representing a bargaining unit, it legally must represent every worker in that unit, whether or not a worker opts to join the union (emphasis mine).

Summing up, Baker explains:

Right-to-work laws prohibit workers from being required to pay for this union representation. What right-to-work laws actually guarantee is the ability for a worker to benefit from union representation without having to pay for union representation.

This from the party of personal responsibility! But conservatives and the right-wing liberals that call themselves “libertarians” (Well, in the United States anyway) would, no doubt, object that even paying a fee for this representation is inherently coercive. Why shouldn’t we all just be “free agents” and deal with our employers on an individual basis? In their world—which bears little resemblance to the world of any non-salaried employee – a person earning minimum wage has equal bargaining power with Walmart, McDonald’s or any other multinational. But bleeding-heart billionaire worker advocates and their “free market” enablers never stop to consider the coercive nature of wage work itself. And they certainly don’t want to discuss what is likely to happen if an individual wage worker decides to approach their employers and demand change. In the real world, uppity “free agents” are disciplined, marginalized as “disgruntled employees” or terminated. Thus, this selective trepidation about the “coercion” of unions is nothing more than projecting on the part of those who favor coercion, as long as it is being carried out by the employer.

There’s Something Happening Here…

So “Right to Work” has nothing to do with empowering workers. Indeed, a 2011 study by the Economic Policy Institute [PDF] found that workers in “right to work” states earn about $1,500 a year less than workers in other states. There is also no evidence that these laws attract employers to states. Instead, “Right to Work” has everything to do with weakening unions where they still exist, which clearly benefits employers and Republicans. And make no mistake about it, the right-wing attack on unions has been quite successful. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 11.8% of wage earners belonged to a union in 2011. But back In 1983, 20.1% of workers were union members.

The effort to undermine unions is only one part of the neoliberal crusade to keep the working class on a short leash while pampering employers and the wealthy. Austerity measures are another tactic. In the United States, the right-wing is taking the gloves off and attempting to hack away at measures that have provided some relief to workers and the poor throughout the last sixty years. Republicans are not primarily interested in saving money, as their “Fiscal Cliff” rhetoric would suggest. They only wish to attack “entitlements,” not other expensive projects like policing the world and waging the drug war. Indeed, look for the police state and the national security apparatus to expand even more as the welfare state contracts. Perhaps we will find that the American Right still has a soft spot for Pinochet’s Chile if we do not resist.

The Limits of Bourgeois Democracy and Big Unions

All of this is not to suggest that I am overly enthusiastic about trade unions or the welfare state. I believe that the welfare state should be defended, but not glorified. As Howard Zinn observed, “All of this—the eight-hour day, a fairly decent wage, and vacations with pay—did not come about through the natural workings of the market, or through the kindness of government. It came about through the direct action of workers themselves in their labor struggles or through the response of state and national governments to the threat of labor militancy.” When workers win concessions from capital and the state, they should be allowed to claim these victories. But these should be viewed as minor victories, because, as we have seen, states and employers will take away the gains of the working class as they see fit. This is the reality of bourgeois democracy: The state does as it wishes, the oligarchs get what they want and the rest of us are told to vote and go shopping.

But traditional trade unions are also hierarchical – dare I say bourgeois–organizations. Sure you can vote for union leaders, but are elected union leaders in large, centralized unions any more responsive to their membership than elected political representatives? A more radical alternative would be the industrial and solidarity unionism proposed by the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), which emphasizes organizing “all workers producing the same goods or providing the same services into one union, rather than dividing workers by skill or trade, so we can pool our strength to win our demands together.” The IWW’s preference for direct action (rather than legislative action) and its desire to replace wage slavery with worker management also points to a radical, left-libertarian alternative to the social democratic methods favored by progressives.

Ultimately, workers should keep in mind the sentiments of Max Stirner: “The labourers have the most enormous power in their hands, and, if they once become thoroughly conscious of it and used it, nothing could withstand them; they would only have to stop labour, regard the product of labour as theirs, and enjoy it. This is the sense of the labour disturbances which show themselves here and there.” If workers embraced such notions, true libertarian change could happen in the workplace and in communities.

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