Michigan's new right-to-work law, this nation's 24th, is ostensibly all about freedom.
Proponents such as Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder say it simply gives workers the right to decide, solo, whether to pay union dues — freedom of choice. That's a pretty American idea, isn't it?
Never mind one obvious retort: Paying for union services only when you need them is like paying taxes for police and fire services only if you use them. We pay taxes to ensure that if we call 911, someone well trained shows up; yet nobody calls 911 on a daily basis.
Union dues work the same way: They protect, often in unseen ways, a collective against the interests of management in a sustained and organized way. That's also a very American idea — checks and balances.
There is a bigger, less discussed problem with right-to-work laws. Plain and simple, they take our most vulnerable laborers — often those who have just clawed their way into the middle class — and make them vulnerable again.
My grandparents came to Detroit as war refugees in the early 1950s. My grandfather, after working odd jobs for a few years and borrowing money from friends, eventually got a United Auto Workers job at Ford Rouge, working the line. The union did a lot for him. Not only did it secure good wages and benefits, as it did for all its members, but also, when he briefly went on medical leave at age 40, it made sure he had a job to return to when he was well. A union steward brought him his prescriptions.
My grandfather had fled a Stalinist purge and did hard labor in a Nazi prison camp. He was terrified of powerful forces — his brothers had been killed for joining a resistance movement — and he lived in such fear of management and big government that I know he would have never declared himself a union member voluntarily. He was too afraid of the repercussions; he would worry that his family would be in danger.
He had evidence to back up his fears, too. Across town at Dearborn Gear & Tool Co., a nonunion shop, my grandmother refused to be part of a union organization effort, though she desperately wanted to be a union member. She'd just seen her best friend, a fellow immigrant who worked at the same plant, get fired for signing a petition to organize. So my grandmother stayed silent, and worked an exhausting manual labor job without high wages or good benefits.
Intimidating the most vulnerable members of the labor force — immigrants, young people, minorities or the poor — is what right-to-work legislation is really about in the long run. Management can tell new workers all kinds of strange things when union membership drives are under way, creating a culture of fear-based obedience, easy to do when unemployment is high.
When I was working in Detroit as a young radio writer, a manager privately advised me to boycott organization activities at that station if I ever wanted to get a promotion. I was 19 and eager for a job; I refused to sign the union organizing petition for fear I would lose my eight bucks an hour.
With right-to-work laws on the books in Michigan, management will no longer need to be so secretive in its intimidation. Want a promotion, kid? Stay off the union rolls. Want to avoid a layoff, amigo? Don't pay your union dues. We'll take care of you.
When paid union membership becomes an individual decision, workers who join unions will undoubtedly face reprisal from management. The most vulnerable workers won't publicly admit their desire to organize by signing up at hiring time. With decreased revenue, unions will weaken, as will their political influence.
Wages will go down across Michigan, and not just in union shops. Unions set the bar for how employers define a "good job." When that bar is lowered, all workers suffer. And Michigan's battered economy — which is sustained, largely, by the spending power of union laborers — could collapse.
In light of all this, one might call Michigan's right-to-work law troubling. When I look back at my life, it's clear that my grandfather's tenaciously saved and back-breakingly earned UAW wages helped my mother make ends meet after my parents' divorce. Those wages helped me pay for my first car that I drove to my first job, helped me pay for college, and helped my wife and me with a down payment for our first home.
When I consider all this, well, Michigan's new law is more than troubling.
Dean Bakopoulos teaches at Grinnell College in Iowa. His most recent novel is "My American Unhappiness."
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