AS Michigan — yes, Michigan — this week became the 24th right-to-work state, the head of the American Federation of Teachers issued a news release. For hyperbole alone it merited a grade of no better than D.
AFT boss Randi Weingarten blasted the legislation as a “right to work (for less) law” that Republicans supported only as a sop to “the Koch brothers, ALEC, CEOs and other extremists waging war on working people.” Is there anything liberals won't blame on the Koch brothers?
This law, Weingarten said, “will drive down wages at a time when income inequality is at its most extreme since the Great Depression.” It will “only increase economic pain and uncertainty in the state by depressing wages and suppressing the ability of workers to collectively bargain for a comfortable and secure future.”
If this sounds familiar, it's because the same rhetoric was used in Oklahoma before the right-to-work vote in 2001. We heard that “right to work (for less)” pejorative. If your argument is reduced to a bumper sticker slogan, at least change the slogan once every decade! We heard about a war on working people. But the high-paid union workers and their bosses weren't affected by open shops. The “working people” affected by forced unionism were Oklahomans who couldn't find work because open-shop states were getting the jobs.
In 2001, Oklahoma's economic pain was real. This was among the factors that convinced Oklahomans to join the list of right-to-work states. Here and elsewhere, some tough times followed the vote (which came two weeks after 9/11). Today, Oklahoma's unemployment rate is 5.2 percent, among the nation's lowest. In Michigan it's 9.1 percent. Oh but those in Michigan who have a job make more money because of the union movement, right? That would be the movement that helped drive General Motors and Chrysler toward insolvency and took the Twinkies out of the Hostess ovens.
The biggest worry Weingarten and other union honchos have about right to work is that their groups are sure to wind up with less rent-seeking money to spend on friendly politicians. Right to work doesn't end the right to organize or the ability to collectively bargain. It simply allows workers to choose whether they want to join a union.
Unions have steadily lost ground in this country. Only 6.9 percent of the nation's private workforce is unionized today. When given the choice, more and more Americans have decided they'd rather keep their money than give it to unions to spend on causes those workers don't support. Last month, Michigan voters rejected a proposal that would have cemented collective bargaining in the state's constitution.
Arguments in support of or in opposition to right-to-work laws can be overstated. Right to work is not a panacea. Nor is it a war on working people. As we argued in 2001, union bosses care mostly about keeping their jobs even when it means others have no jobs.
The extremists in this argument are the unions and their friends in high places. They want a guaranteed income stream from dues-paying members, regardless of whether individual members wish to belong to a union. In any other area of American life, this would be considered unconscionable coercion. For Weingarten? Well, it's as American as all those Detroit-made cars that we all bought before switching to imports manufactured (at a lower cost) in right-to-work states.