Awash with the sound of protesters yelling and the chaos of arrests being made, the process of passing ‘right-to-work’ laws continued among the pepper spray fumigated hallways of the Michigan state legislature. Regardless of state legislators attempting to spin the legislation as not being anti-union, but pro-worker, the purpose of such legislation is clear: to weaken the vitally important abilities of labor organizations to collect dues and build resources.
Realistically, the justification for these types of laws are doubly flawed; on one hand, much if not most of the financial support for legislators passing Right-to-Work laws comes from individuals associated directly with the coffers of successful, moneyed corporations. This of course isn’t very surprising given that the spending power of labor unions, politically speaking, is becoming increasingly trumped by corporate interests which can quickly mobilize huge reserves of financial resources. It must be pointed out that this is only a specific aspect of a larger economic narrative and is related directly to such factors as the stagnation of wages and the decline of the labor share in contrast with the continued growth of the national GDP. All of these factors have the consequence of creating a more politically precarious labor movement.
The other form of flawed logic behind right-to-work legislation comes from the more ideologically-driven advocates on the right. Destroying labor unions, they believe, will make it easier to further depress wages and make the U.S. economy more competitive. This is nothing more than a band-aid for a severely wounded economy and doesn’t address systemic problems and questions about creating a healthy, stable market place. These market based ideologies beg the question: how many more decades will millions of workers have to tolerate destructive boom and bust cycles before legislators decide to build a more stable economy.
Far from being surprising, these legislative battles are a difficult reminder for labor unions mainly that they can expect political victories for workers to increasingly dry up. The most important lesson for labor can probably be learned from the shortfalls of the Democratic Party, whose failure to pass EFCA while simultaneously supporting trade agreements which are destructive for the workforce seem to drive one point home: that labor unions can’t afford politics anymore. This isn’t so devastating, perhaps, when you consider that there’s still an alternative. That alternative is to begin rebuilding union membership in industries with little to no representation. This is the best chance labor unions have of rebuilding their resources and gaining political leverage. Undoubtedly, it will be a difficult task, but at this point, truthfully, it might be less difficult than trying to win political victories. Not to mention, that might be the only option left, anyway.