The adoption of so-called "right to work" legislation in Michigan, of all places, represents an historic setback for organized labor. First, Republicans went after public employees in the birthplace of public unions, Wisconsin. And now they have taken the fight to private employee unions in the cradle of modern industrial unionism. Conservatives are right that, if they can win in Michigan, they can win almost anywhere.
Despite the arguments advanced by right to work proponents that they are trying to make Michigan more attractive to businesses, this legislation was a calculated effort by conservatives and business interests like the Koch brothers to redistribute political power from Democrats to Republicans (hence the exemption for police and firefighters, who are friendlier to Republicans) and from workers to employers. Previously in Michigan, no one was forced to join a union, but workers who benefited from collective bargaining were required to pay fees to cover the cost of that bargaining. The new law eliminates that requirement, allowing employees to benefit without paying a fee, thereby weakening unions’ ability to participating in politics and negotiate for better wages. As President Obama noted, right to work legislation is really about "the right to work for less money."
Nevertheless, there is an important lesson for liberals and labor in the Michigan story about the power of rhetoric. "Right to work" is a mendacious slogan but a politically resonant one. It's mendacious because everyone in every state has the right to work; the legislation simply gives employees the right to be free riders--to benefit from collective bargaining without paying for it. Yet members of the media mostly employ the phrase without qualification. (Even those that say "so-called" right to work repeat the phrase over and over again.) This past Saturday, the Washington Post'sfront page featured stories on gay marriage going before the U.S. Supreme Court and the right to work debate in Michigan--and a casual reader could assume that both stories were about "rights" ascendant.
The brilliance of the slogan is that it pits the individual's "right" to choose whether to pay dues (and who likes paying dues?) against the interests of large institutions (labor unions). Labor responds with a justifiable plea about the need for workers to be united and pay their fair share for representation (and, ultimately, better wages). But when the fight is framed as individual rights vs. solidarity, rights usually win. Indeed, when asked to identify government's most important role, 59 percent said in a 2010 Rasmussen poll that it is to protect individual rights and liberty.
Rather than continuing the losing battle of solidarity vs. rights, it's time for liberals and labor to engage in the battle over what kind of rights workers should enjoy. The most vivid way for labor to recapture the rhetoric of "rights" is to propose amending the Civil Rights Act to make it illegal to fire or otherwise discriminate against employees for trying to organize a union. Currently, employers frequently target the ringleaders in a union drive, terminate their employment, and scare everyone else, paying only very modest financial penalties for violating our labor laws. Making this behavior illegal under the Civil Rights Act would substantially toughen penalties and help Americans understand that such abusive employer behavior involves a violation of the basic individual right to choose to join a union. It would be much harder for legislators to vote against "civil rights" for workers than it is for them now to oppose "labor law reform."
Some members of the labor movement are beginning to talk about labor organizing as a civil right. In Canton, Mississippi, the United Auto Workers has been arguing that “worker rights is the civil rights battle of the 21st Century” as its tries to gain collective bargaining for a mostly black workforce at a Nissan Motors plant. If successful, this effort would provide a powerful response to opponents of labor – in the heart of the anti-labor South no less.
If organized labor is to survive in the United States, it can't just fight against the idea of individual rights. Instead, it needs to embrace them in a new campaign that makes Americans understand that the right to organize is being violated by employers every day -- and that the winners are the 1 Percent and their Republican allies.
Richard D. Kahlenberg is a senior fellow at The Century Foundation and Moshe Z. Marvit is a labor and civil rights attorney. They are coauthors of Why Labor Organizing Should Be a Civil Right: Rebuilding a Middle-Class Democracy By Enhancing Worker Voice (2012).