Dick Meister: Michigan is just the beginning


By Dick Meister
Bay Guardian columnist Dick Meister, former labor editor of the SF Chronicle and KQED-TV Newsroom, has covered labor and politics for more than a half-century. Contact him through his website, www.dickmeister.com, which includes more than 350 of his columns.

Be alert, American workers: The passage of right-to-work legislation in Michigan means serious trouble for unions and their supporters everywhere. Yet there's legitimate hope that it also could lead to a revitalized labor movement.

You can be sure the action by Michigan, long one of the country's most heavily unionized states, home of the pioneering and pace-setting United Auto Workers and iconic labor leader Walter Reuther, will inspire anti-labor forces in other states to try to enact right-to-work laws.

They aren't likely, however, to try in California, where voters rejected a right-to-work proposition in 1958 and this November rejected the viciously union-busting State Proposition 32.  But union foes here as elsewhere are certain to seize on the Michigan vote, and the passage earlier this year of a right-to-work statute in Indiana, as evidence of labor weakness that they will try mightily to exploit, politically and otherwise.

They're already seeking right-to-work laws in Ohio and Wisconsin and planning other steps around the country to weaken  the economic and political clout of unions and their supporters and thus weaken the basic rights and economic position of all working people.

As contradictory as it might seem, that could lead to a badly needed revitalization of labor. For it should make it unmistakably clear to unions and their supporters that there's a very serious need for a greatly stepped-up mobilization against their political and economic enemies.

 True, unions lost a major campaign this year in trying to recall Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker for his attacks on the collective bargaining rights of public employees. But that should not dissuade labor from waging other efforts against union opponents. They came close to recalling Walker and, in doing so, laid the groundwork for future campaigns and proved that unions are quite capable of waging major campaigns against their opponents. That surely discouraged at least some others from taking anti-labor actions that would anger labor and its powerful supporters.

Notably impressive as well was labor's role in helping elect – and re-elect – President Obama. Labor opponents and supporters alike learned from that, if they didn't already know it, that unions have the money and the manpower to seriously mount major campaigns. They put millions of dollars and millions of campaign workers into their extraordinary efforts on Obama's behalf.

Obama has responded by appointing a pro-union secretary of labor, Hilda Solis, and other pro-labor men and women to run the Labor Department, plus issuing executive orders that have strengthened the rights and legal protections of working Americans .

But unions are of course doing less well in Michigan and most other states, and that's being reflected in Congress, where labor has had a rough time getting approval of national measures such as a higher minimum wage.

Most importantly, labor has been unable to garner the votes for passage of the Fair Employee Free Choice Act that has long topped labor's political agenda. The act, which has been stalled in Congress for three years, would give workers the absolute right to unionization, by making it easier for them to form and join unions.

Also high on labor's agenda is the pressing need to modify the 1947 Taft-Hartley Act. It has allowed states to enact right-to-work laws, even though the laws, now in Michigan and 23 other states, are clearly designed to weaken – if not destroy – unions by denying them the right to collect the money from members that is essential to effectively represent them in bargaining.

Bay Guardian columnist Dick Meister, former labor editor of the SF Chronicle and KQED-TV Newsroom, has covered labor and politics for more than a half-century. Contact him through his website, www.dickmeister.com, which includes more than 350 of his columns.


Outside the sclerotic and bureaucratic public sector, and the few remaining pockets and outposts of manufacturing in the less bombed out parts of the MidWest, unions are increasingly irrelevant. California doesn't need to pass a "right to work" law because unions have little purchase in this State anyway.

Even in Michigan, the unions at GM had to swallow many concessions in order to keep the company afloat, and lost more power thru that than this law proposes.

It's cute that you cling to the past in the way you do, but it hardly confers credibility on you in the post-union California of 2012. Unions are an archaic, antiquainted concept in our new knowledge and service economy.

Posted by Guest on Dec. 21, 2012 @ 8:00 am

Michigan is the beginning of the end.

Labor has been reduced to negotiating concession after concession and electing pro business Democrats who kick labor in the teeth once elected.

Working folks don't want to pay for a labor elite that is coasting on organizing achievements of those long dead with no plan for arresting the decline.

Against this backdrop of unacceptable status quo, would it really be that bad a thing if labor had to appeal to the membership for resources instead of continuing to get dues from a captive audience whose aspirations it no longer represents?

The difference between losing unions altogether and watching these supervise concessions into final decline over the next decade at this rate is negligible.

Posted by marcos on Dec. 21, 2012 @ 9:32 am

from the ones I have met is all college grads who are indoctrinated in the usual social justice non sense.

The leadership has a lot in common with the self-selected stewards who eat that stuff up, the average member doesn't have that much of an interest in the doings of the union leadership, and probably is alienated by much of it.

Posted by matlock on Dec. 21, 2012 @ 1:37 pm

There are those who view the SEIU leadership as a cult.

Posted by marcos on Dec. 28, 2012 @ 9:15 am

that people would want to force you to join their club.

The worse employees always tended to be the biggest union backers. If it was about wages and the such it would be a little more tolerable, instead it all turns out to be about protecting the jobs of the worst workers who also tend to be the most annoying to be around. There's something about being a union shill and thinking that petty imagined slights and conspiracy theories ruin your already miserable life.

At this point government unions are self perpetuating monoliths. Their policies are designed to hire more useless government employees and create more departments, they should be paying the salary of such servile flunkies to their cause as David Campos and John Avalos.

Posted by matlock on Dec. 21, 2012 @ 1:34 pm

that year far and away the most work was trying to negotiate a payoff deal for this one employee who everyone agreed was useless, inlcuding those who worked immediately with him. And yet hours and hours were spent trying to get him a sweetheart deal.

These days that same guy would be out the same day with no payoff. And one important result of that is that there are now less useless people in the workplace because, quite simply, they don't survive.

And of course shouldn't survive.

The delicious irony at the heart of the auto unions is that, when GM went bust, the union had to invest in, and provide funds for, the retirement benefits of their own workers. Now THAT is a union doing something useful.

Posted by guest on Dec. 28, 2012 @ 8:30 am