Michigan, the cradle of the union movement in the United States, is poised to join the ranks of so-called “right-to-work” states. The Koch Brothers’ meat puppet Governor Rick Snyder says that this attack on the political power of unions would be a victory for “freedom.” Unless he’s talking about the freedom to gut the wages of Michigan’s workers, he’s not telling the truth. The bill Snyder poised to sign this week is about restricting the freedom of working people to organize. It even blocks the “freedom” to challenge the bill in a referendum. This is an outrage and the unions are fighting back. Amongst their ranks are the Major League Baseball Player’s Association and the National Football League Player’s Association. This might shock some people. Sports unions are often criticized, incorrectly, for not caring about issues off the field. It’s a piece of “conventional wisdom” that stretches back to the first chief of the AFL-CIO George Meany who said, “I have no use for ballplayers as union men. You’d never see the day when one of those high-priced bozos would honor a picket line.”
I spoke with DeMaurice Smith, executive director of the NFLPA, about his thoughts on the right-to-work issue in January when Indiana became the first Rust Belt state to pass their own version of the bill. He said, “When you look at proposed legislation [called] ‘right-to-work’ let’s just put the hammer on the nail. It’s untrue. If [you want] ‘right-to-work’ have a constitutional amendment that guarantees every citizen a job, that’s a ‘right-to-work.’ What this is instead is a right to ensure that ordinary working citizens can’t get together as a team, can’t organize, can’t stand together and can’t fight management on an even playing field. From a sports union, our union, our men and their families understand the power of management and understand how much power management can wield over an individual person. So don’t call it a ‘right to work.’ If you want to have an intelligent discussion about what the bill is, call it what it is. Call it an anti-organizing bill. Fine. If that’s what the people want to do in order to put a bill out there, let’s cast a vote on whether or not ordinary workers can get together and represent themselves, and let’s have a real referendum.”
I also asked, DeMaurice Smith how he responded to people who say that this is just unions standing up for other unions with no care for workers. His answer stands as a terrifically important response to those standing with Snyder and the Koch brothers on this issue.
Smith answered, “I used to say that we have forgotten a lot of the lessons from organized labor over the last 100 years, but I’m now convinced that we never learned them. Whether your talking about fire escapes outside of buildings or sprinkler systems inside of buildings, fair wages for a days work, laws that prevent child labor, things that led to the abolishing of sweatshops in America, let alone management contributing to healthcare plans or a decent pension.… all those things over the last 100 years were not gifts from management. Someone in a corporate suite didn’t decide one day that they would bestow that wonderful right upon a working person. The way those rights were achieved was through the collective will of a group of workers who stood together and said, ‘This is what we believe is fair, and we are all going to stand together and demand that those things be provided to us. We’ll do it as a collective group. You may be able to pick off one of us or two of us or five of us, but you will not be able to pick off all of us.’ When you look at legislation that is designed to tear apart that ability to work as a team…that is not just anti-union. That is anti–working man and woman, and that’s why we weighed in.”
The fight is certainly not over in Michigan. Those opposing right-to-work legislation however are going to need to expand the planned protests and civil disobedience in the coming week. It’s safe to say that it would make a substantial difference to this struggle if members of the Detroit Tigers and Detroit Lions take a cue from their own union executive boards and make their way down to the capital.
For more on the labor battle in Michigan, read Lee Fang's report on spending on both sides.