An elderly man grabbed my arm as I was weaving through the crowd outside the Capitol building in Michigan’s capital city, Lansing.
“Please tell the world I spent 30 years in the car industry and the United Auto Workers union got me my small pension – just enough to pay my light bill – but I’m grateful.”
I was so taken aback that I forgot to ask his name but we both shook hands firmly and parted telling each other how grateful we were that we were present at this moment.
We weren’t alone either. We were surrounded by 5,000-17,000 union members and their supporters, all keen to shout down Right To Work legislation that was about to be voted through by state’s House of Representatives.
There was an air of sad inevitability all around because the unions knew the numbers didn’t add up in their favour and that meant Michigan – once a bastion of union labour in the United States – was about to become the 24th state to adopt so-called Right To Work laws.
Right To Work – a misnomer
Right To Work makes closed shops illegal – in other words when the law hits the books it will no longer be legal for unions to insist workers join-up or pay similar dues as a condition of getting a job. There are just two exceptions – police and fire fighters.
The union leaders smell a rat – as if to prove it there were two giant inflatable rodents on the Capitol lawn – a US labour tradition at times of dispute.
They fear this and other anti-union measures that have been enacted all across America in the past two years since the Republican landslide in the House of Representatives in Washington DC is all designed to weaken their powers and rob workers of voice in the workplace – such as collective bargaining for better pay and conditions.
Katie Oppenheim, a registered nurse, told me why she was in Lansing with colleagues who’d taped their mouths shut to make a point.
“The employer has more power, more ability to come to us and say ‘well we don’t want to give you seven hours between shifts to sleep anymore, we’re going to go back to the old days where you could work 20 hours in a row and then come back for another shift'”.
Boilermakers in an RV
I bumped into Fred Keith from the Boilermakers union. He was with his colleagues in an RV (like a large bus or coach) covered in impressive paintwork depicting the glorious history of boiler making. They’ve been around since the age of steam-making boilers for ships, trains and these days refineries and power plants.
“We set the bar for wages and benefits in this country and we would like nothing more than everybody to get those same wages and benefits … Right To Work just means less pay, fewer benefits and more unsafe conditions because unskilled workers can now be taken on.”
The employers don’t see it that way at all. They suspect some of the funds the unions collect go towards democratic political causes and seldom conservative ones.
They also reckon Right To Work states attract many new jobs and they want Michigan to be as competitive as the other 23 as it has to compete with not only at home but also aboard – remember the state is home to the “Big Three” automakers – GM, Ford and Chrysler.
It’s about being competitive
Charles Owen represents Michigan’s small business community and worried that if Right To Work wasn’t passed the state would slip behind the others.
“We want to stop losing jobs, we want employers to come here and create jobs. We want employers that are here to stay and not relocate when they make a relocation decision to a Right To Work state.”
When the results of the vote in the House filtered out there was angry booing from the crowd. The president of the UAW chapter in Flint Michigan Art Reyes told me it was like, “a punch in the stomach,” but the fight would go on to convince workers in Michigan of the benefits of belonging to a trade union.
‘Hee, hoho, Governer Snyder’s got to go!’
Governor Snyder – a Republican – had originally vowed to steer well clear of the Right To Work legislation but abruptly changed his mind last week and promised to sign them into law as soon as possible.
This he did – behind closed doors with a police escort – in the early evening after the House vote.
Union leaders say they’ll not easily forget all this and he’d better watch out when he comes up for re-election in 2014.
In the meantime, they say, the fight goes on to convince Michigan residents seeking employment that it IS worth signing up for union dues with or without a closed shop.