Just over a month after an election in which the role of Corporate America in the nation’s governing philosophy played a key role, champions of the “pro-business” and anti-labor agenda are shrugging off defeat with swift action in the heart of the American manufacturing center.
Quite literally the home of organized labor in the United States, both historically and present day, the status of unions and the millions of workers they represent changed virtually overnight in Michigan this week. Despite blocking efforts by Democratic legislators and protests from workers and labor activists, Gov. Rick Snyder signed a controversial “right-to-work” law into effect on Tuesday.
Michigan becomes the 24th state to adopt the union-busting law, so described by critics who note the strong support given to the effort by some of the largest and most profitable businesses in the state and the country eager to cut labor costs. Opponents say the legislation would more accurately called “right-to-work-for-less.”
Gov. Snyder’s decision to support right-to-work sparked such public outcry that the governor was forced to condust the official signing ceremony behind heavily secured doors at the state capitol building.
Gov. Rick Snyder has signed legislation making Michigan the nation’s 24th right-to-work state.
“I’m confident this is in the best interest of Michiganders,” Snyder said Tuesday evening.
In dramatic fashion, the Michigan House of Representatives on Tuesday afternoon sent Snyder two controversial right-to-work bills as thousands of rowdy protesters demonstrated outside the Capitol.
The House first approved House Bill 4003, 58-51, establishing a right-to-work law for public sector unions. A second bill, Senate Bill 116, which applies to private sector unions, was approved more than an hour later, 58-52.
“This is a major day in Michigan’s history,” Snyder said. “I don’t view this as anti-union at all. I view this as pro-worker.”
Snyder cited the daylong Capitol protests as a reason why he signed the landmark legislation in private.
“I don’t see the need to have a public signing ceremony to overemphasize that, because this isn’t us verses them,” Snyder said while Michigan State Police troopers in riot gear continued to guard his Romney building office.
Even days after Snyder’s action, scores of protests were erupting across the state. Most were started by workers and labor organizers fearful of the consequences they say are inevitable in an ironically named “right-to-work” environment. Michigan is where the United Auto Workers was founded in the early days of the American auto manufacturing industry, but the new legislation has profound effects well beyond the car business.
Faculty at the University of Michigan joined in a spontaneous demonstration against the changes right-to-work will impose on their job status and benefits at a time when a new contract is being negotiated.
Aided by an innocuous title and financial wealth and media savvy of its corporate and political backers, “right-to-work” laws have generally been tolerated and even championed by many Americans as a reasonable tool of business. As noted above, 23 other states, most of them conservative and located in the South, already have right-to-wok laws on the books, and the high unemployment, low wages and poor benefits that are reflective of “right-to-work” have sparked little controversy.
But with business interests and their political allies seeking to greatly expand the reach of right-to-work, the changes wrought to the rights and protections afforded workers in a heavily unionized state like Michigan will expose the raw realities of the law and what it means for ordinary Americans.
Critics call right-to-wok nothing less than “corporate servitude,” with lawmakers in Michigan handing over great powers over how workers are treated to the corporations that have the most to gain from marginalizing their employees.
Michigan has just passed a corporate servitude law. It is designed to take away many of the worker rights that unions have conferred throughout their history: The right to a living wage. The right to equal pay for women. The right to deferred payments in the form of pensions. The right to negotiate workplace standards and working conditions. The right to overtime pay.
The law is intended to destroy unions, or at least make then ineffective. It says simply that workers do not have to pay union dues to take a job — even if they get benefits previously negotiated by a union. Most workers who don’t have to pay dues won’t pay, and that will defund the unions, killing them and taking away rights unions have fought hard for over generations. Without workers negotiating as a unified group, corporations will not have to grant those union-created rights. Corporations will have take-it-or-leave-it power over individual workers. In short, this is corporate servitude: you do what you are told and take what you are offered.
The interests behind right-to-work have done an incredible job of masking the economic realities of the law. Peddled by executives and lawmakers as the path to a job-creating, wage-boosting utopia, anti-union states actually suffer under much worse economic conditions for average workers in addition to the loss of basic protections and benefits.
There are plenty of standing examples of the false promises of union-busting. Right-to-work states like Mississippi and South Carolina have not enjoyed the boom predicted for Michigan by proponents of the law, suffering under some of the highest jobless rates in the nation.
Average employees in right-to-work states take home nearly $2,000 less in pay than their counterparts in states without the measure in effect. And employment in right-to-work stats is centered in low-wage/no-benefit positions that drive a lack of health insurance and boost dependency on taxpayer-funded government assistance.
States with “Right to Work” Laws Have:
Lower Wages and Incomes
- The average worker in states with “right to work” laws makes $1,540 a year less when all other factors are removed than workers in other states.
- Median household income in states with these laws is $6,437 less than in other states ($46,402 vs. $52,839).
- In states with “right to work” laws, 26.7 percent of jobs are in low-wage occupations, compared with 19.5 percent of jobs in other states.
One of the more troubling aspects of right-to-work is its elimination of many state-level regulations ensuring equal pay for women. Promises of shared prosperity simply do not add up, with right-to-work states among the worst in the nation in terms of the gender pay gap and equal treatment for female workers.
Women receive an average of nearly 5 percent less pay in right-to-work states, nearly 3 percent less than men. Experts contend that the law dramatically impacts females and minorities to a far “larger extent” than men.
But critics of the legislation say that workers’ wages will drop without unions’ collective bargaining power. The law will impact all workers, the critics say, potentially reducing salaries and benefits, but it could disproportionately affect women, who already have lower annual earnings than men.
The average full-time worker in a right-to-work state makes approximately $1,500 less per year than a similar worker in a non-right-to-work state, according to a briefing paper by the Economic Policy Institute (released in February 2011). And women’s wages in right-to-work states are 4.4 percent lower than in non-right-to-work states, while men’s are only 1.7 percent lower, according to the EPI analysis.
“The policy hurts everybody, but women and minorities to a larger extent,” says Carol Rosenblatt, executive director of the Coalition of Labor Union Women.
How Michigan managed to join the list of deep red conservative states with right-to-work is a testament to the power and influence of corporations and wealthy financiers eager to use their fortune for political advocacy.
The Koch Brothers and a Michigan billionaire with a fortune inside the top 70 in America largely financed a “grassroots” effort to position themselves in the Michigan legislature, with GOP Gov. Rick Snyder an avid supporter of the measure.
Together with Jack Hoogendyk, a former Republican member of the Michigan House who supported right-to-work, and a small group of other activists, they founded the “Michigan Freedom to Work” coalition, which sought to capitalize on Republican control of the state legislature and the governorship.
They held press conferences in June 2011 and in September 2011 took their show to the Republican Leadership Conference on Michigan’s Mackinac Island. In attendance were Republican presidential candidates Mitt Romney and Rick Perry as well as Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus.
As a sign of growing support among conservatives for right-to-work, Hoogendyk says that there were hundreds of activists in attendance wearing yellow “Freedom To Work” T-shirts.
A group linked to the conservative billionaire Koch Brothers, owners of an energy and trading conglomerate who are reviled by unions and Democrats, held three conferences in Michigan in early 2012 on right-to-work featuring renowned conservative blogger Andrew Breitbart. Three Republican presidential candidates including Romney and some 1,500 activists attended the last conference on February 25 sponsored by Americans for Prosperity, four days before Breibart’s death.
The right-to-work campaign gathered momentum when the activists linked up with Dick DeVos, the son of Richard DeVos, co-founder of Michigan-based Amway, and Ronald Weiser, former chairman of the Michigan Republican Party and ambassador to Slovakia under President George W. Bush.
Richard DeVos was listed as the 67th richest person in America by Forbes magazine in 2012 with a net worth estimated at $5.1 billion. Amway sells consumer goods such as skincare and home cleaning supplies through some 3 million people and its parent company had sales of $10.9 billion in 2011.
Flush with almost instant success in Michigan, the group of multi-national corporations, Tea Party activists, conservative financiers and political operatives behind the national right-to-work movement are vowing to aggressively expand their reach.
Corporate interests have long wished for a national effort to crush labor unions and coalesce their authority of labor laws and the rights of workers. With the milestone of half the nation being “right-to-work” almost within their grasp, leaders of the movement are ready for a nationwide fight. And so are their opponents, buoyed by their more recent political victories.
The conservative groups that supported Michigan’s new “right to work” law — winning a stunning victory over unions, even in the heart of American labor — vowed Wednesday to replicate that success elsewhere.
But the search for the next Michigan could be difficult.
National unions, caught flat-footed in the Wolverine State, pledged to offer fierce opposition wherever the idea crops up next. They consider the laws a direct attack on their finances and political clout at a time when labor influence is already greatly diminished.
“If Michigan can do it, then I think everybody ought to think about it,” said Mark Mix, president of the National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation. He said he thinks at least one more state will adopt such a law before the end of 2013, and listed Alaska, Missouri, Montana and Pennsylvania among the top contenders. “Very confident. It will happen. [But] I can’t tell you where the next one is.”
In the 26 states without such legislation, conservatives have a renewed sense of hope. “I support this goal on the national and state level and look forward to Kentucky joining Michigan in the near future,” Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) said in a statement.
Even in blue New Jersey, a major backer of right-to-work bills said the shift this week in Lansing had changed some minds.
“I think that what happened in Michigan sent a signal that people in states with histories of strong unions are now open to a new perspective,” said state Assemblywoman Amy H. Handlin (R).