One could make the argument that Michigan midwifed the labor movement into existence. Now we seem to be on the verge of killing it. Frankly, the question of ‘right to work’ is one that I’m genuinely conflicted on. And this will be a post that’s pretty heavy on anecdotes.
On the one hand, I do believe that labor organizations have made working (and subsequently living) conditions much better for tens of millions of Americans. From compensation to safety regulations, health care to other protections (workman’s compensation, paid time off, etc.), people have benefitted greatly from the power that unions wield. In short, people get a much fairer shot of live, and that matters. In the hallway of a lobby at Consumer’s Energy headquarter in Jackson, there was a plaque that listed all of the workers killed on the job since the foundation of the company. Up until about 1935 or so, anywhere from one to three workers died on the job annually. Thereafter, it was about one every four years. You could chalk that up to new federal regulations that protect the lives of workers. And there did those regulations come from? Demands by organized labor. In many cases, labor has effectively saved the lives of workers.
However, when people go so far to say that unions ‘built the middle class’ in the US, I feel that’s the beginning of the overreach that unions are prone to. Capital and technology were also crucial in the equation, and you couldn’t have the outcome without all three. I think that unions, as any political organization is prone to, will fight to the death for their own ends, rather than what broadly benefits the US. Case in point: NAFTA. It was great for the US economy, but unions fought it, tooth and nail.
Then there are the stories about unions that make my blood boil. Just Google ‘New York City Teacher’s Rubber Room.’ A friend of mine was recently going through an administrative nightmare with her local UAW chapter because they were denying her some paid time off, and the local president just didn’t feel like dealing with it, so he denied it. There’s also every single encounter that I’ve ever had with workers from the city of Detroit, all of which have been excises in extreme, yet equal, measures of absurdity, incompetence and outright hostility.
Labor has done great good. Labor has also been their own worst enemy. Often, unions protected the interest of individual workers to the extent that they end up looking like a protectionist racket. Had unions been more concerned with equity, rather than focussing solely on power, dues, tenure, compensation and benefits, they probably wouldn’t find themselves in the middle of their own demise. Which is too bad, because I think there’s a real need for unions, despite their historic overreach. Regardless of my opinions, the week in Lansing is sure to be noisy.