Thursday December 13, 2012

More than one observer has noted that the middle class came into existence in large part due to the rise of the union movement in the mid-20th century.

Unionized workers for manufacturers of all types -- especially the auto industry -- and in other industries as well, enjoyed rising wages with benefits and guaranteed pensions that put the American Dream within reach.

And it can't be entirely coincidental that the decline of the middle class in recent decades has largely coincided with the decline in influence and reach of labor unions.

Another chapter in this decline was written earlier this week in Michigan, the birthplace and bastion of the modern union movement in the U.S.

After having said he wouldn't, Michigan Republican Gov. Rick Snyder flip-flopped on Tuesday night and signed so-called "right-to-work" anti-union legislation. Republicans last week introduced this and rammed it through a lame-duck session of the legislature without benefit of hearings.

The term "right-to-work" refers to laws that prohibit requiring workers to pay union dues as a condition of employment. Even in Michigan workers are not forced to join unions; until now, however, those who gained from the better wages and benefits were required to pay union dues and fees.

This makes Michigan the 24th right-to-work state; most of the others are in the deep south or are in less-populated states in the West.

"This is a major day in Michigan's history," Snyder said when signing the bill. "I don't view this as anti-union at all. I view this as pro-worker."

Concern for the rights of individual workers has nothing to do with this, however. Political payback against unions who support Democratic candidates is a big part of it. Moreover, as The New York Times noted on Tuesday, "gutting unions is the fastest way to achieve lower wages and higher profits."

Not surprisingly, Americans for Prosperity, a front organization founded by one of the billionaire Koch brothers, infamous tea party plutocrats, stood in the forefront of the push for right-to-work in Michigan.

Michigan Republicans had to hurry and do this in a lame duck session before a less-Republican legislature, elected in November, came to power in Lansing in January.

Interestingly, the new laws governing private and public sector unions exempt police and firefighter unions. Exempting them indicates both political cowardice and acknowledgment that unlike private-sector unions, and public sector teachers' unions, police and firefighter unions generally spread cash donations among both parties.

The strongest case proponents of the legislation made is that since implementing right-to-work in 2011 neighboring Indiana added thousands of new jobs. And, indeed, there is evidence that right-to-work laws do help attract businesses to a state; however, there is equally strong evidence that economic gains go mostly to owners, while average wages decrease.

In a visit to Michigan on Monday, President Obama summed up right-to-work laws: "They have everything to do with politics. What they're really talking about is, giving you the right to work for less money," he said. "America's not going to compete based on low skills, low wage, no workers rights. That's not our competitive advantage. There's always going to be some other country that can treat its workers even worse."

The new laws will not easily be undone. In the hasty and tawdry process of ramming right-to-work through, Republicans did take care to attach a minor appropriation bill to the legislation. Appropriation laws cannot be repealed in Michigan by voter referendum. Whether this procedural maneuver will survive a legal challenge is unclear.

Like many institutions, the union movement has had difficulty adjusting to a changing country with changing demographics and a changing economy. What happened in Michigan Tuesday is a blow to organized labor in the short-term. We hope in the long term it spurs creation of adaptive and innovative strategies to insure workers adequate say in their economic destinies.