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A Silver Lining In Michigan Labor Defeat

The attack against Michigan unions – by right-wing political and business forces, resulting in the rollback of significant labor rights – was swift and vicious. But, consider this: in the hand-wringing over the defeat, there are long-term, silver lined lessons for unions globally.

What did the legislation advanced by anti-labor forces do?

It eliminated automatic dues check-off.

So, now, unions can no longer rely on an easy flow of dues money deducted automatically from wages.

Union leaders are legitimately concerned because, in the way unions currently operate, it seems like a mind-boggling task to sign up members one by one, and ask them to authorize the collection of fees.

The immediate reaction has been to declare a counter-offensive.

“We’re just going to have to be prepared to fight back like never before,” said Lee Saunders, president of the public-sector AFSCME in an interview in Politico.com.

“You look at Ohio, where you have a Republican governor and Republicans control the House and Senate, the same in Wisconsin, and we’re just going to have to be prepared. Not only the labor unions in those states, but we’re going to have to work very hard with our community partners. This is going to be a long-term battle.”

But, maybe it’s worth stepping back for a moment to ask: what kind of battle does labor want to fight?

If that battle is simply about restoring dues check-off, union opponents will simply say: “You see? All unions care about is funding their own institutions.”

Unions might win the fight but not before some highly expensive, drawn-out battles that would be a public relations minefield.

I’m all for fighting—but, if labor wins back automatic dues check-off, will that change the overall playing field in the long run?

How did unions get to a place where, in Michigan – a place that gave birth to the United Auto Workers – labor can be run over by a two-bit political hack like Governor Rick Snyder?

To be sure, labor has declined because of an unrelenting assault by employers bent on enriching themselves and impoverishing workers, all cloaked in the phony, and failed, rhetoric of the ‘free market’.

But, I have never believed that the viciousness of employers provides an adequate explanation of all our ills.

In the early twentieth century, Pinkerton security guards, thugs and strikebreakers spied on, assaulted and killed unionists – yet that was a time when people joined unions by the droves, a period when workers would drive 50 miles to attend a union meeting.

Why? Partly, it was the Great Depression and its aftermath—people were desperately poor, and exploited.

But, there was something else.

The union leaders lived among the rank-and-file. They talked to them one-on-one. People were signed up, face-to-face, and, in the process, they were brought into the union mission, culture and struggle.

It was a daily, shared struggle and conversation.

Fast forward to 2012.

Almost two decades ago, I wrote a short book called “The Edifice Complex”, arguing that union-owned buildings in Washington DC were symbolic of massive assets frozen inside concrete structures that housed large institutions that were too interwoven into the political system to respond to the crisis labor faced.

It’s not because labor leaders are bad people.

The reason is much more mundane: you have to constantly attend to the care and feeding of existing ‘voters’. But, aside from a strike or a bargaining dispute, most of members have very little contact with their union.

Moreover, too often this interlocking, layered institutional giant has been incapable of being a welcoming face for taxi drivers, immigrants, domestic workers and a whole raft of people who do not fit into the easy slot of an existing bargaining unit.

The end result: workers drifted away from the union, voted for anti-worker candidates or, in the case of non-union members, stopped seeing the union as the go-to defender of workplace rights.The Michigan debacle, then, offers an opportunity to make a renewed connection with workers.

Sell off some of those big buildings and pour the assets into fielding an army of organizers who sign people up, one-on-one, to the dues’ rolls. And use that time to engage the conversation about the larger mission of the union.

Make the fight about something bigger than automatic dues check-off.

I think it’s worth making a public ‘grand bargain’ offer that will do a lot more to advance the economic health of the US than the other foolish fiscal debate underway.

Unions should challenge the business community to make a deal: labor will waive automatic dues check-off.

In return, businesses will have to agree to allow free and fair union elections—corporations would be required to adopt complete neutrality in workplace elections (meaning, no captive audience meetings, no videos, no propaganda—complete silence); grant complete and unfettered access to union organizers to speak to workers; commit to binding arbitration for first contracts within 90 days of bargaining a first contract; accept a ban on the right to use permanent replacements in strikes; and not block the passage of severe mandatory jail sentences, not fines, for corporate managers who violate organizing rights or safety and health laws.

Of course, that “grand bargain” would never fly with the political and business elites who run the country because they know it would lead to a flood of new union members.

But, it would expose the entire façade of the anti-union forces who claim to be for “worker freedom”. And it would inject a new energy into the ranks of labor.

(First published by Equal Times)

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