Neil Macdonald: The right to work for less

Union-busting right-to-work laws have swept across the U.S. South and West in recent decades. In a sign of the times, one was just passed today in Michigan, the state where the American labour movement was born.

The citizens of Michigan will soon be given the right to work. They must be terribly grateful.

On his website, Gov. Rick Snyder declares that the "right to work" legislation headed for his signature as early as today "will improve the lives of countless Michigan families by restoring workplace fairness and equality for all workers."

In fact, calling Michigan's new labour law "right to work" legislation is like calling a bill that strips away hard-fought civil liberties "The Patriot Act," or denying gay Americans the right to wed by passing the "Defence of Marriage Act."

In the late-1940s, George Orwell invented the concept of newspeak to lampoon such oily official euphemisms. He could not have imagined how the skill would be perfected in America decades later.

Right-to-work laws are almost exclusively the efforts of Republican legislators in the American South and West and essentially mean the outlawing of almost any arrangement guaranteeing union security.

Michigan's law, actually two bills passed by the Republican-controlled state legislature on Tuesday, is merely the latest in a long train of these partisan victories. But its symbolic import is that it will likely deal a crippling blow to already weakened unions in the state where the American labour movement was born.

Once such laws take force, workers cannot be compelled to pay union dues, or in some cases to join the union where they work. Companies are freed from any obligation to deduct union dues from paycheques.

This is always framed as a matter of individual freedom, a law to liberate the worker from the tyranny of Big Labour, which may spend someone's hard-earned dues on causes that person doesn't support.

But in practice, right-to-work laws enfeeble unions, which is what they are meant to do.

Under these laws, companies can easily discourage new workers from voluntarily signing union cards. And a union forced to directly collect dues from workers who are under no obligation to pay them is not going to collect nearly as much.

Work for less

There are 23 "right to work" states in the U.S., right now, most of them in the deeply union-unfriendly Norma Rae South.

Workers in those states enjoy lower wages, roughly 10 per cent lower, and of course far fewer protections against arbitrary treatment at the hands of managers striving for efficiency bonuses.

Unionized workers in Michigan gather on the steps of the state legislature to protest against the new right-to-work law that is expected to pass on Tuesday. (Associated Press)

Michigan's workforce can expect to follow suit.

As President Obama said during a visit to Michigan car plant on Monday, what the right to work laws ultimately confer is "the right to work for less money."

The laws have also been a robust factor in declining union membership. At their peak in the 1950s, American unions were headed toward representing half the national workforce.

At the end of the last decade, by some estimates, barely 10 per cent of U.S. workers were unionized.

Now, it is unarguably true the unions brought a lot of their misfortune upon themselves. The larger ones have often been corrupt and sometimes entangled with organized crime.

They have often stubbornly protected mediocrity, sometimes even opposing any entrenchment of the concept of merit, which has given rise to a public image of unions as the protectors of smug deadwood.

At a newspaper where I once worked, an entire shift of pressmen were paid full wages simply to be on standby every night. They didn't even have to show up. It was in their contract.

Terminate at will

Digging their own grave, some of the more ideological unions even remain committed to the concept of "worker control of the workplace," and have shown themselves utterly indifferent to the good of the employers — private- or public-sector — that their members serve.

Corporate managers have also been complicit in this death spiral, agreeing to pension terms that have hobbled corporations and, nowadays, threaten to bankrupt state and local governments across the U.S.

In this light, the politicians who push these right-to-work laws like to claim they have the general good of their state's economy in mind. And statistics tend to show higher growth in those places that have passed such legislation.

But one can argue that is largely because corporations migrate to jurisdictions that give workers the least power, just as credit card companies flock to states without anti-usury laws, like South Dakota and Delaware.

Of course, an even more attractive option for employers is the "employment-at-will" laws that certain states have enacted.

Virginia is one such state. To quote from its website: "The employer may terminate any employee at any time, for any reason, or for no reason."

Maryland, considered a more progressive jurisdiction, has rebuffed Republican attempts to join the right-to-work group, which primarily targets union activity.

But for those workers unfortunate enough not to be protected by a collective agreement or contract, Maryland expands the "at-will" concept to allow its employers to terminate for any reason, "whether fair or not."

To be clear: unfair labour practice is entrenched in Maryland law.

This entire trend represents some of the most significant victories achieved by the corporate interests behind many of today's hard-right political movements, conservative activists like the billionaire Koch Brothers, Dick DeVos, the Amway scion, and Richard J. Stephenson, the business tycoon who sits on the board of Freedom Works, the most prominent Tea Party organization in America.

Still, even those in the business of reducing the protections of ordinary workers seem to make sure they leave a few in place for themselves.

When former Freedom Works chairman Dick Armey parted ways with the organization a few weeks ago over an "ideological difference," it was reported, the former Republican politician was able to walk away with an $8 million severance deal.

After all, a fella needs some job security.