The trade unions and Michigan’s “right to work” law

Michigan’s “right to work” law, passed in December, goes into effect today, making the state the 24th to prohibit contracts that require workers to pay union dues or fees as a condition of employment.

As the World Socialist Web Site explained when it was signed, the law is reactionary and regressive, its principal aim being to undermine the ability of workers to organize collectively. The main backers of the law and similar measures in other states are sections of the corporate and financial elite that see them as means for intensifying the exploitation of the working class.

Our principled opposition to the law, however, in no way implies support for the organizations that are its immediate target—the official trade unions. After decades of betrayals of the workers they nominally represent, and the imposition of one round of layoffs and wage cuts after another, the unions and their right-wing leadership have earned the hatred of rank and file workers, making them neither able nor willing to oppose the decision of Michigan’s Republican governor and Republican-controlled legislature to cripple the unions financially and spurn their services in helping suppress working class opposition.

The inability of the unions to mobilize effective opposition to the law—in the state that was birthplace of the United Auto Workers (UAW)—in itself reflected their bankrupt and moribund state.

Even more dramatically, the actions taken by the unions in the three months since the law was passed have provided new proofs of the antagonism between them and the interests of the workers. The central preoccupation of the unions has been to lock in long-term labor contracts retaining the automatic dues checkoff by offering up in return the wages, benefits and conditions of their members.

Preserving the mandatory dues checkoff—the process by which monthly union dues is deducted from workers’ paychecks and forwarded to the union apparatus—has been the sole concern of the unions in regard to the right to work law. This is because the guaranteed flow of dues is critical to the financing of the bloated salaries of union executives and the funneling of money into Democratic Party election campaigns.

Union officials are well aware that labor contracts reached after the March 28 starting date of the right to work law cannot legally include mandatory dues and the automatic dues checkoff, and that, as a result, many workers, seeing in the unions an alien and hostile force, will stop paying dues.

The new law, however, does not apply to labor contracts signed before March 28. Thus, one union after another has rushed to sign an extended agreement with management, laden with workers’ concessions, to lock its dues income in place. With the support of the employers, contracts that are still in effect have been re-opened expressly for this purpose.

A case in point is the contract pushed through by the Detroit Federation of Teachers (DFT) earlier this week, covering 4,000 teachers. The contract was due to expire in 2015, but it was reopened so that the union could get an agreement lasting for another year. The new contract includes a pay freeze and gives a green light for the city to escalate its assault on public education.

With an emergency manager taking control of Detroit this week, the aim of the unions in the city is to convince the corporate and financial elite that they are useful tools in imposing attacks on city workers. DFT President Keith Johnson made this point explicitly when he declared, after the contract was passed, that “innovated and effective reforms”—code words for expanding charter schools and victimizing teachers—“are usually achieved through collaboration and the collective bargaining process, not through dictating and micromanaging.”

Elsewhere in the state, unions have signed agreements spanning up to ten years. After successfully pushing through a five-year contract that includes a wage freeze for teachers in Dearborn, a local union official summed up the thinking of petty union bureaucrats everywhere when she gushed that the deal meant that “we will be able to continue having our union dues deducted through payroll.”

As for the UAW, it signed contracts with the Big Three auto companies in 2011 that held labor cost increases to their lowest levels in four decades, including through the expansion of low-paid “second tier” workers earning $15 an hour. Even before contracts are up in 2015, the UAW is working with companies to impose further attacks, such as an agreement with Chrysler to end the eight-hour day.

The unions’ response to the right to work law follows a pattern set in other states. This includes Wisconsin, where unions rushed to sign concessions agreements in the wake of a 2011 bill that prohibited collective bargaining for government workers. Mass demonstrations against the law and a budget attacking social programs were channeled by the unions behind the Democratic Party and smothered.

The hostile relationship of these organizations to the working class is bound up with their political alliance with the Democratic Party and their unconditional support for the capitalist profit system.

The mass industrial unions were established through quasi-insurrectionary struggles, including the sit-down strikes in Michigan that consolidated the position of the UAW in auto. The union movement, however, was dominated by a pro-capitalist and anti-communist bureaucracy that tied the unions to the Democratic Party.

In the post-war period, under conditions of economic growth and the hegemony of American capitalism on the world stage, workers were able to win certain rights and benefits despite the domination of the unions by right-wing bureaucrats. However, under conditions of the subsequent decline in the global position of American capitalism, the unions linked their interests ever more directly to those of the corporations and the capitalist state.

The national-based trade union organizations responded to the development of globalized production in the 1970s and 1980s by seeking to improve the profitability of American corporations at the expense of the jobs, wages and benefits of their rank-and-file members. From seeking to win concessions from the employers, they were transformed into instruments for imposing ever more draconian concessions on the workers.

Today the unions exist entirely at the behest of the corporations and the state. They speak on behalf of a privileged layer of the upper-middle class that profits from the exploitation of workers. Their response to such developments as the right-to-work law is to appeal to the ruling class to guarantee their organizational domination of the working class.

These organizations cannot be reformed. They long ago ceased to be working class organizations. Those pseudo-left groups, such as the International Socialist Organization (ISO), which insist on the hegemony of the unions do so precisely because they oppose the emergence of a genuinely independent movement of the working class and because they themselves aspire to occupy lucrative positions in the union apparatus.

Class tensions in the United States are building to a breaking point. Five years after the onset of the financial crisis, social inequality is more pronounced than ever. Led by the Obama administration, the Democrats and Republicans are intensifying their war on the working class. At the same time, the stock market is soaring and the wealth of the corporate and financial elite has surpassed pre-crisis records.

As it enters into struggle against these conditions, the working class will come into ever more direct conflict with the unions. The formation of new organizations of struggle—democratic rank-and-file action committees—must be a central component in the independent political mobilization of the working class in revolutionary struggle against the big business parties and the capitalist system.