Yesterday’s passage of a “right-to-work law” in Michigan produced civil displays of emotion in Lansing. Their “enthusiasm” has been exceeded only by those demonstrations commonly seen across the state when Detroit wins a championship… but in this case, the driving force was losing, not winning. The issue at hand, a “right-to-work law,” means that workers are prohibited from having to pay union dues as a condition of employment.1
Michigan is the 24th state to do this according to several news sources. However, in a state which prides itself with a long history of thriving unions, this was a culture shock. James Hoffa (son of the late union leader Jimmy Hoffa) said prior to the vote, “Let me tell the governor and all those elected officials who vote for this shameful, divisive bill – there will be repercussions.” On the other hand, Reuters also reported that “Republican Representative Lisa Lyons said during the debate in the House that such laws were not an attack on unions. ‘This is the day Michigan freed its workers,’ she said.” 2
The new law will not go into effect until ninety days after the end of the legislative session and will not impact current existing labor contracts.2 Nevertheless, the battle lines have already been drawn and some options exist, including a possible referendum.
Management vs. Labor and Labor vs. Management. The conflicts have been occurring since humans began working for other humans, voluntarily or otherwise. The success of any relationship is dependent on the potential for an equitable give-and-take, amicably if possible. There must be some sort of balance of power between the two entities. This balance may come from a natural division of advantages each has over the other or might require the intervention of a third party.
Historically, it’s evident that each side in business situations is capable of running roughshod over the other. In the late 19th century, the advantage was so blatantly in favor of management that union pioneers like Samuel Gompers (cigar workers) literally had to take up the fight to achieve a semblance of fairness for the work force.
Prior to that, Presidents Jackson (1834, construction of Chesapeake and Ohio canal), Hayes (1877, violent rail strikes) and Cleveland (1894, Pullman strike) had sent troops to control labor’s uprisings against bad work situations. 3 By the 1960’s, labor had the upper hand in many companies which greatly impeded the possibility of sensible decisions by management.
In succeeding decades when the national economy improved, the influence of labor unions decreased as they were decertified or were unable to organize workers in new locations. Their loss of revenue quickened even with the existence of the aforementioned requirement that all employees of firms with union representation were required to pay union dues.
Unlike the earliest days of management/labor bargaining, federal laws are in place which protect all workers, not just unionized. For example, management is not permitted to restrict workers’ attempts to organize. The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) ensures that such laws are enforced. OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Administration) has numerous standards which must be implemented in work places, procedures protecting workers’ rights to report violations, etc.
“Right-to-work” laws bring opposing views face-to-face literally. Organized labor is concerned that these laws will further reduce union membership; thus, weakening its bargaining power evens more. It also claims that these laws do not increase job opportunities as the proponents claim. Those promoting “right-to-work” say that it creates a more stable and fairer management/labor balance which produces more reasonable wage/benefit levels. The resulting level playing field encourages investment leading to more employment – a priority of organized labor.
Human nature requires a balance of power for any relationship to thrive. Even major league baseball began to understand this in the 1960’s when it instituted the amateur draft and established the maximum number of times a player could be sent to the minor leagues after which he would be available to other teams. This prevented the wealthiest teams from securing an unfair advantage by hoarding players and keeping them stuck in their organization forever.
Management should not have a monopoly on decision-making affecting workers’ lives. As the Catholic Church recognizes, unions have a role, “not only in negotiating contracts, but also as ‘places’ where workers can express themselves.” 4
Each hourly worker must have the right to choose to be organized or not. No one should be coerced into joining a union nor should anyone be intimidated into not joining.
Understanding all of this, it becomes clear that the absence of “right-to-work” laws would be a contradiction to fairness. If a specific union represents the obvious advantage of representing workers’ rights, then the union should not need a law requiring membership. The worker will readily recognize the value of joining it.
1 – Sean Sullivan, The Washington Post, posted12/10/2012 at 10:48AM
2 — Bernie Woodall, Reuters, posted 12/11/2012 at 6:28PM
3 – U.S. Department of Labor, Monthly Labor Review, October 1975 article by Jonathan Grossman
4 – United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, 2005 Labor Day message quoting the late Pope John Paul II in his Centesimus Annus, #7