The Michigan legislature today passed a misleadingly labeled “right to work” law. You might think a statute with that name would be concerned with the dignity and welfare of labor, but you’d be wrong.
What the law actually guarantees is the right to work for substandard pay, under dangerous conditions, without health or retirement benefits or vacations or sick days, for long hours with no over time. What the law protects is a child’s right to leave school and become a drudge in a sweatshop. What the legislation defends is differential pay for men and women, and being fired-at-will if you complain about no lunch breaks or not having a sanitary bathroom in the workplace. What the “right to work” really means is the freedom to live in a company town, paid with scrip that can only be spent at the company store, so that the harder you work the deeper in debt you go.
You see, virtually all the protections that American workers enjoy today—that make a job in Flint, Michigan better than a job in Beijing, China, for instance—were won through the struggles of organized labor. The eight hour day, equal pay for equal work, the abolition of child labor and similar reforms were achieved only through collective bargaining and tools of mass action like picket signs, general strikes, sit downs and boycotts that begin to give individual employees something like parity with the vast power of the corporation. Naturally, China outlaws trade unions. That’s why Chinese workers are paid a tenth of their U.S. counterparts and why they’re three times more likely to be killed on the job.
But Michigan’s new “right to work” law guts the power of unions by declaring that individuals can opt out of paying union dues, even when they are with a firm whose employees have voted to unionize, even when they are sheltered by contracts and enjoying benefits that can only come from the power of organized labor. For unions, this means death by a thousand cuts.
Michigan’s working families have moved one step closer to destitution. But at least their right to become indentured servants has been upheld.
Serf City, here we come!