Yves here. Even if the overall picture of workers’ rights looks bleak, the flip side is that the concerted rollback is finally producing reversals of longstanding cuts to rights, as we can see with growing union organizing drives successful. Michigan’s big break to repeal anti-union “right to work” laws is another step forward.
By Tom Conway, International President of the United Steelworkers Union (USW). Produced by the Independent Media Institute
The United Steelworkers (USW) have relentlessly mounted fair trade battles and other lifelines it helped keep McLouth Steel open through the 1980s, allowing Jay McMurran and thousands of other Michigan workers to raise families and build pensions amid one of the nation’s worst economic crises.
Recognizing that other workers need the same kind of strength behind them, McMurran decided to fight back when Republicans “Right to Work” (RTW) legislation to gut unions was passed by the state legislature in 2012.
He and other union supporters and their allies worked tirelessly for years to oust corporate scoundrels and elect pro-worker legislators instead. Their long struggle culminated in victory on March 21, 2023, when new Democratic majorities in the House and Senate voted to repeal the misleadingly named RTW laws, restore the full power of the workers to negotiate fair contracts and safe working conditions.
Democratic Governor Gretchen Whitmer has since signed the legislation, which represents the latest in a chain of victories for workers mobilize to strengthen Across the country.
No one in America is ever forced to join a union, and no union wants workers to join against their will. Yet a union is legally bound to serve all workers in its bargaining unit.
Many states allow unions to charge nonmembers a small fee to help cover representation costs. But in some states, back-to-work laws imposed by companies and anti-worker groups allow nonmembers to receive union services for free.
These laws intentionally divide workers, erode the solidarity that is the foundation of union strength, and deprive unions of the resources needed for effective bargaining, training, and other essential goals, all for the benefit of the boss.
“‘Right to work’ is simply an anti-union scam that Republicans disguise as ‘choice,'” observed McMurran, a longtime USW member who worked at McLouth Steel for 27 years.
“It weakens the local union,” he said. “It weakens the position of every worker when it comes to collective bargaining, grievance hearings, arbitrations. The boss knows your weaknesses and he exploits them.
It’s no surprise that workers burdened by back-to-work laws are much lower wages than their counterparts in other states. They are also less likely to have employer-provided health insurance and pension plans than other workers.
At the same time, workers in RTW states are at a higher risk of dying on the job because they lack the strong, unified voice needed to fight for workplace safety.
“All I have is because I was a steelworker,” said McMurran, who recalled that unwavering solidarity among his colleagues not only ensured good contracts and safe working conditions, but also allowed their employer to stay in business.
“The mill I came out of struggled financially for 13 years, and the Steelworkers fought to keep the place open almost every day of those 13 years,” McMurran said, citing the busloads of USW members that converged on Washington, DC, in the 1980s to ask for corporate support. “We actually kept the place going so more people qualified for pensions and employer-sponsored health care. We did some good things there.
Unfortunately, despite such successes, Michigan GOP lawmakers have conspired with corporations and others anti-union interests undermine workers’ power.
McMurran was among the 10,000 protesters who packed the statehouse in a last-ditch effort to stop Republicans from pushing RTW through a lame duck session during the 2012 holiday season.
The Union members lost this skirmish but won the war.
After Republicans passed the legislation over protesters’ objections, McMurran said, workers and their allies launched a “long-term” plan to reverse it.
Workers helped push through a referendum in 2018 that took redistricting out of the hands of partisan political hacks and entrusting the process to fair citizens. New, evenly distributed legislative districts allowed voters to elect pro-worker legislators who wanted to represent them rather than corporations.
And those pro-worker majorities, in turn, moved quickly to end the return to work. For McMurran, the win underscored both the power of collective action and the importance of electing the right people to office.
Workers in other states are also pushing back the RTW in the middle growing support for organized work and a pandemic that has underscored Americans’ need for good wages, affordable health care, and other union benefits.
For example, even though Michigan Republicans united behind a failed RTW defense, several Montana GOP lawmakers helped kill RTW legislation in this state in February 2023. The opponents included Republican Senator Jason Small, a member of the International Brotherhood of Boilermakers, who described his 26 years of union membership as a “holy opportunity” in his life.
“It has nothing to do with red or blue. It’s what’s good for people and their families,” said Curtis Schomer, vice-president of Steelworkers Local 11-0001.
Schomer, who ran unsuccessfully as Republican candidate for Montana House in 2022, traveled to Helena, the state capital, on several occasions to rally against RTW and testify against harmful legislation.
He noted that a strong union gives him and his 1,300 colleagues at the Sibanye-Stillwater mining complex the power to bring safety issues directly to management and resolve issues immediately. In a dangerous industry like mining, he noted, that kind of voice saves lives and ensures workers get home safely at the end of their shift.
Schomer expects pro-corporate interests to continue pushing RTW into Montana. But he predicted that these efforts will fall flat in communities that not only have a rich heritage of union activism, but also continue to appreciate the benefits that unions offer.
“Our unions do a lot for our communities,” Schomer said. “Above all, they do a lot for safety at work. People see that.