Michigan legislators did not write the so-called “right to work” legislation that they have enacted in a mad rush of anti-democratic excess.
They simply did as they were told.
The ideas, the outlines and the words themselves came from the American Legislative Exchange Council, the right-wing “bill mill” that produces “model legislation” at the behest of Koch Industries, Rupert Murdoch’s NewsCorp, ExxonMobil and the corporate cabal that is always looking to “buy” states.
As the Center for Media and Democracy’s “ALEC Exposed” project revealed (in conjunction with The Nation), ALEC has developed binders full of “model legislation” that assaults the rights of working people, consumers and communities.
ALEC’s package of “model legislation” includes numerous bills and resolutions that, by any reasonable measure, would be referred to as “no rights at work” schemes.
Those measures formed the basis for HB 4003, the Michigan “Right-to-Work Act” that has provoked mass demonstrations in Lansing and other Michigan communities.
Section after section, line after line, of the Michigan legislation mirrors the ALEC model legislation, as revealed by the “ALEC Exposed” project. “The legislation is straight out of the Koch-funded ALEC playbook,” explains Brendan Fischer, the staff counsel with the Center for Media and Democracy. At some points, the Michigan lawmakers shifted words, from “resign or refrain from…a labor organization” in the ALEC model legislation to “refrain or resign from…a labor organization” in one of the two Michigan bills.
At other points, the Michigan Republicans simply lifted whole sections verbatim, outlining how workers who get the advantage of union representation will not have “to pay any dues, fees, assessments or other charges, of any kind or amount” to a labor organization.
The willingness of legislators in Michigan and, it should be noted, other states to simply take marching orders from ALEC is troubling enough.
But even more troubling is the reason why corporations and politicians in states where the middle class was forged by organized labor agree on the “need” to advance anti-labor legislation.
This is not about economic development, growth or job creation. And it is certainly not about “freedom,” as Michigan Governor Rick Snyder claims.
This is about warping democracy so that corporations have a consistent upper hand, with the result being that those politicians who are willing to do the bidding of corporations and wealthy donors are more likely to prevail. In this sense, the best way to understand the recent rush to enact anti-labor legislation is as part of the same initiative that has produced restrictive Voter ID laws, schemes to limit early voting and proposals to eliminate same-day registration.
What distinguishes the anti-labor initiatives is that they do not explicitly seek to make voting more difficult. They seek to make it harder for groups that seek high turnout to get voters motivated, to get voters organized and to get them to the polls.
Ultimately, however, the end result of the assault on labor rights is the same as a direct assault on voting rights: a diminished democracy.
Democracy is, of course, about more than elections. And that’s where the anti-union push becomes even more significant. It seeks to narrow the discourse by weakening groups that offer an alternative to a Wall Street–dictated future for communities, states and the nation.
Attacks on labor are nothing new. Michigan is not the first state to enact a “right to work” law—the most draconian of anti-labor initiatives. It is the twenty-fourth. Southern states enacted their laws restricting labor organizing and political engagement decades ago, at a time when legislators and governors in Alabama, Mississippi, South Carolina and other bastions of segregation feared that integrated unions would unite white workers and African-American workers on the side of social improvement. That created barriers to the labor movement in the South at a time when it was still growing in much of the country.
Now, however, the anti-labor push has come north.
There is a reason ALEC and its corporate sponsors want to undermine unions.
In states such as Michigan, and Wisconsin, and Ohio, and Indiana, organized labor provides a political counterbalance to corporations. Unions cannot and do not match the spending on elections by wealthy donors and corporations. But the willingness of unions to commit financial and human resources to political fights makes a huge difference at election time in states where the labor movement has a significant presence. The 2012 election results—particularly the big wins for President Obama and Democratic Senate candidates in Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin—point to the connection.
This is not, however, simply about Democrats or Republicans, liberals or conservatives. Among the Michigan legislators who opposed the latest attack on union rights were six state House Republicans. Unions have long traditions of aiding Republicans, and even social conservatives, who have proven to be allies of working people. Prominent conservatives once opposed “right to work” laws, as Ronald Reagan did at the start of his political career, writing as he launched his 1966 California gubernatorial race: “I also was a leader of our [Screen Actors] Guild in the fight in 1958 against the [California] right-to-work bill. I am still opposed to right-to-work.”
Now, for the most part, conservatives have cast their lot with corporations. And the demand of corporations, particularly those engaged in the ALEC project, is that politicians who want to earn the favor of corporations and wealthy donors such as Charles and David Koch or Michigan right-wingers Dick and Betsy DeVos must advance anti-labor legislation.
Anti-labor laws in Wisconsin, Ohio, Indiana and Michigan—and the attempts to do so in states such as New Hampshire—have been advanced by political figures with ALEC ties. Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker is an ALEC alumnus, as is Ohio Governor John Kasich. Among the key sponsors of the Michigan law that Governor Snyder signed today was state Senator Dave Hildenbrand, a Republican who famously paid his ALEC dues with taxpayer funds.
Those political figures are determined to limit the ability of unions to engage in political activity on behalf or working families, communities, public services and public education.
Why? By making it harder for unions to organize and to represent workers, “right to work” laws make it easier for corporations to get their political allies elected. The corporations and the legislators come together in the American Legislative Exchange Council. They produce “model legislation” to advance their project. And that project is about rewriting the rules so that the corporations win.
“What they’re doing is basically, betraying democracy,” says Teamsters president James Hoffa, who promises a great struggle to restore labor rights in Michigan.
Hoffa’s point is well taken.
Michigan politicians have betrayed democracy.
And democracy betrayed is democracy denied.