Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Don't Ignore Michigan's Assault on Labor

The Michigan state legislature passed and it's governor, Rick Snyder signed it's landmark 'Right to Work' law in an attempt to eviscerate the iconic significance of that state's labor unions. 

I live in Texas, which, like a number of southern states is a right to work state. That designation is not necessarily a kiss of death. But that's true because of workers rights codified into law by the work of labor unions. 

Stories indeed abound about the corruption of unions, their lessening influence, especially during the last half of the 20th century, of their institutional concern with self perpetuation and the threat they pose to shareholders and tax payers with their unreasonable labor demands. 

Little is written anymore to their legacy enjoyed by most of us: the five day work week, competitive salaries, safe working conditions, vacations, standard employee benefits and retirement pay. Most of us take these benefits for granted, but we have them because of unions. 

Texas, more specifically and relevantly (since this is where I live) north central Texas does quite well. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average weekly wage in in the U.S. for the first quarter of this year was $984 a week. In north central Texas it was $1085. Texas' economy tends to be counter cyclical and is focused on energy and finance. But make no mistake about it, the influence of labor is felt even in a right to work state like Texas. 

Michigan State Senator Gretchen Whitmer, in a speech that explains her vote against Michigan's new law, gives us another reason why this law passed. The law bypasses concern for the quality of life of its citizens in order to provide political retribution for the recent national elections. The financial support and political clout of unions were the counter weight to the financial 'free speech' of the Super PACS. This was payback. Senator Whitmire's passionate discourse reminds them that in an effort to neuter the union's political influence this measure hurt hurt families. 

An honest, even political public debate can be had over the role of unions in the 21st century - especially since the impact of the Great Recession. Is it better to fight for higher paying jobs for a few at the expense of jobs that employ more people at lesser wages? Is the public good better served by corporate profits benefiting investors, or by increasing the number of wage earners by re-investing profits through increased hiring or increasing the wages of workers. What sacrifices must unions make in collective bargaining? And what is the appropriate role of unions in our political process? These are a few honest questions that we haven't begun to answer yet. 

Michigan's law is not an answer. It's a statement. And it's one about which we should all be worried, because the fate of unions will impact us all, just as their victories have benefited us all. 

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