Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Who Wants to Provide a Full-Throated Defense of Labor Unions?

Harold Meyerson repeats the common belief that Michigan's rushed-through anti-union law was meant to punish unions for daring to attempt to protect collective bargaining through a constitutional amendment:
In Wisconsin, a union-initiated effort to recall Republican governor Scott Walker, who had pushed through the legislature a law stripping public-sector unions of collective-bargaining rights, failed badly at the polls. In Michigan, after voters (in the same election in which they gave Obama a clear victory) decisively rejected a union-initiated ballot measure that would have enshrined collective-bargaining rights in the state constitution, the Republican legislature passed, and Republican governor Rick Snyder signed, a right-to-work law in the cradle of American industrial unionism. What makes these defeats more bitter was that both involved unforced errors—actually, the same unforced error—on labor’s part. On the evidence of polling, many union leaders and political directors believed from the start that the Wisconsin recall and the Michigan ballot measure were fights that could not be won, but their cautions went unheeded by well-intentioned unionists in both states. It’s not clear that Snyder, who had previously disavowed any interest in enacting a right-to-work law, would have changed his mind had the measure not been put on the ballot and defeated, but its defeat certainly set the stage for the Republicans’ sudden and unheralded push for right to work during the legislature’s lame-duck session.
Did it also "set the stage" for their trying to cram through "open carry" legislation? For their attempting to cram through anti-abortion legislation? If you take a step back and look at the reactionary legislation of Michigan's lame duck session, the only reasonable takeaway is that the Republican Party had the bills prepared, ready and waiting, and that the only thing that changed following the election was that they no longer had to lie about their intentions. If Governor Snyder can be assumed to have had a change of heart, rather than it being inferred that he has been telling his party, "Wait until after the election", I expect that the change of heart had a lot more to do with the defeat of his emergency manager legislation than it did with the pro-collective bargaining amendment.

There's something else to consider: even if the Republican party passed its right-to-work law as petty revenge for the proposed collective bargaining amendment, they hid that intention through the election. It's correct to suggest that the amendment never had much of a chance, but it would have had a much greater chance of passing had the Republicans announced, "If this fails, we're going to make Michigan a 'right-to-work' state", or "We plan to cram through anti-union legislation in the lame duck session." I have encountered several people who voted against the proposed amendment on the basis that it was overreaching who have expressed that had they known what the Republicans were planning they would have voted for the amendment despite its flaws.

But it's important to remember something else. Even with the Republicans lying about their intentions due to their fear of a public that supports the right to unionize, they understand that many people who favor protecting the right to organize are not big fans of unions. They recognize that for the most part, whether we're talking about the state or federal level, the Democratic Party is of a similar mindset - to the extent that Democratic administrations may have pursued policies that slowed the demise of organized labor, they supported other policies that contributed to the loss of union jobs. Democrats have overtly rejected a German-style approach to labor organization. Under the best of circumstances, labor unions would not have had an easy time over the past half-century, but nobody's been trying to make it easy for them.

What of the unions themselves? Over the past fifty years, Michigan has had six governors. Four were Republican. Neither of the Democratic candidates emerged from unions. When the unions have managed to advance candidates with strong union ties... things have not gone well at the ballot box. Michigan's Democratic U.S. Senators are similarly pro-union, but not out of the unions. That is to say, the public at large seems to have long wanted to maintain something of an arm's length relationship with the state's unions. If history's lesson can be trusted, about the worst thing that could happen for the Democratic Party, two years from now, would be for the unions to dominate the nomination processs and election campaign.

When you ask people to make the case for unions, some will start with a history of the labor movement and point to the abuses of management, past, present and overseas. Some will talk about the importance of protecting the rights of workers in an imbalanced relationship, or of how weak U.S. labor laws are as compared to other countries while suggesting that the job and workplace protections we have emerged in no small part from the efforts of the labor unions. But you almost never encounter a full-throated defense of unions. It's in fact pretty rare to encounter somebody who, perhaps reluctantly but often quite willingly, admits to the problems associated with organized labor even as they defend the role of unions. Here's something else that's interesting. One faction that is heavily invested in the debate has done a terrible job of defending labor unions and organized labor. I am speaking, of course, of the unions themselves.

Governor Snyder can't make a case for his right-to-work law, so we get stories about jobs supposedly flooding into Indiana, or the suggestion that becoming a right-to-work state is actually good for workers and labor unions. You know what? If the "solution" to Michigan's economic woes is to add a handful of low-wage jobs to the economy, part of the race to the bottom that leads to Michigan's economy being indistinguishable from that of Mississippi, I don't consider that to be a good thing.

Flint has gone a great job adding non-union, low wage jobs - telemarketer phone banks. Is that the future Snyder wants for Michigan? Because if his model is Ann Arbor, this anti-union stuff is at best a distraction. I admit that my perspective is skewed by wanting good governance, healthy communities, the availability of good schools, good jobs, and the like. If you look at the states with the worst economies, the worst per capita incomes... Republican strongholds.

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