Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Michigan governor signs right-to-work bill limiting unions - World - CBC News

Under the heading: the silliness of ideology. This story:

Michigan governor signs right-to-work bill limiting unions - World - CBC News:

highlights the fact that "right to work" is now spreading in the US outside of its conservative basis.  This story is about "right to work" legislation. And, silly might not be the right way to describe it. At the risk of being accused of being biased ... there is little that can be said that is positive about "right to work" laws.  The issue I want to address, however, is not the merits of such laws (again, they are few) but what this law can tell us about broader issues. Here, it seems to me, there are a couple of points worth noting (perhaps more, but I will look at two).

The first and most troubling thing is that they are not about the right to work.  A real and serious right to work law would guarantee employment to those willing and able to work. This law doesn't. It simply makes it harder for workers to bargain collectively. In other words, it does nothing to increase employment, it does not make work a "right," and harms the bargaining power of unions. The first serious problem with "right to work" then is that it is a blatant mystification of what the law is actually about.

Is this important? Well ... yes it is and it is important for a number of reasons. I can fully understand someone who were to say "you know, I oppose organized labour. I don't like the fact that workers can bargain collectively and I have no problems with the power imbalance between joe worker and a multinational corporation. For that reason, I will vote for a measure that will make it difficult for workers to organize."  The person who said that would be being honest. You can disagree with them (I do), but they would have the merit of being honest.

By contrast "right to work" laws are dishonest.  This dishonesty might make for good politics (who could, in fact, oppose the right to work) but it also helps to breed political alienation and distrust of government. Why should anyone believe a government that calls legislation that will harm workers "right to work?" The very dishonesty of laws like this are one of the reasons that there is an increase in political alienation. The implications of right to work, then, extend beyond the workplace and create a negative effect on public life by perpetuating the idea that governments are dishonest and disguise what they are doing.

The second problem with "right to work" in the US is that it is kicking a dead horse. A friend of mine who lived and worked as a journalist in the US for a fair number of years once told me "there is no class conflict in the US." He was no individualist, American exceptionalist. He believed in social class and class conflict. His next sentence was "The class is over and the workers lost."

Again, one can subscribe or not to my friend's view, but the truth of the matter is that organized labour has little power. Its been a declining force in the US for a long time, since at least 1980 and the arrival of Reagan. In other words, organized labour ceased to be an important political and economic force in the US some time ago. Further anti-union laws will do nothing. If there was any gain to be had from such laws, we would have seen it by now. And this, in turn, begs a question: if there is no social or economic benefit to the introduction of a particular policy ... why introduce it?

Would you? I'm serious. Imagine some other policy, let's say a policy that will order Martians to get parking permits before going to Walmart. A policy that has no point, right? Good governments rarely concern themselves with pointless policies. Saskatchewan does not regulate its coastline; Newfoundland does not introduce policies to protect its rainforest. The reason that good governments do not introduce pointless policies is ... well ... they are pointless. Why waste your time and a pointless policy can only be a waste of time.

In the case of the US, union rates are so low and the union movement so disempowered that even in Michigan, government officials feel that they can completely ignore organized labour. Think about that for a few seconds: the only way right to work legislation could pass in Michigan is that the union movement is powerless to stop it (it tried and failed) but this very powerlessness shows how weak organized labour actually is. If it were stronger ... they could have influenced elected officials and defeated this bill. The fact that it was passed, then, demonstrates its pointlessness.

So ... why is this law being passed if it is pointless and really does little then take a gratuitous shot at a horse that is dying a slow and painful death. One reason might be that someone will benefit from this law. It won't be the people of Michigan or the workers (lower pay means lower spending means fewer jobs means slower recovery). But, those people who run large car manufacturing facilities will benefit.  No new jobs will be created through this legislation but it will redistribute money upward from workers to capitalists. So, one reason that a legislature might pass a pointless bill is that the point is just not clear.  There is a point: redistribute wealth from workers to the rich.

I suspect, however, that more is going on then this. There is something odd about politics in America and, sometimes, politics in Canada. Sometimes it is about things that happened a long time ago. It took, for instance, some Americans a long time to realize that the Cold War was over. (Some Canadians don't realize that either, but that is a story for another day).  In the same way, there are those who "live in the past" on labour relations; they fight yesterday's battles. In this case, the battle is over the power of labour. The fact that this battle -- like the Cold War -- is over and has been for some time does not change the fact that some people feel they have to keep fighting this battle (even if their opponent is in a coma). They want to win this fight for their own reasons.

Opposition to organized labour in the US is like this. It is no longer a meaningful fight politically or economically. But, for some it is emotionally and this turned out to be the case for the government of Michigan.

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