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Overturning Right to Work


Michigan is on the verge of repealing its right to work law, returning the state to those that have a basic respect for workers’ rights. I, among other historians, talked to Kate Riga at Talking Points Memo about the significance of this action.

In 1946, Republicans won majorities in Congress for the first time in 15 years, signaling an end to the era of New Deal liberalism. They passed the Taft-Hartley Act over President Harry Truman’s veto — it was an “explicit reaction to union success,” said Erik Loomis, a professor who specializes in U.S. labor history at the University of Rhode Island — which made it illegal for unions to negotiate contracts that included joining the union as a condition of employment. That threw open the doors for states to pass right-to-work laws.

And pass them they did. These laws ripped through the South, where unions were already relatively weak. 

Racial animus shot through these efforts to cripple unions, and some southern Democrats in Congress had helped Republicans beat Truman’s veto. 

Openly white-supremacist lobbyist Vance Muse, during a right-to-work campaign in Arkansas just before Taft-Hartley gave these state laws life, handed out literature warning that without the law “white women and white men will be forced into organizations with black African apes whom they will have to call ‘brother’ or lose their jobs.”

While repealing its right-to-work law will only directly apply to a limited universe of workers — union members represent about 14 percent of wage and salary earners in Michigan — it marks a distinct shift in how unions are being perceived and how the Democratic Party is embracing them. 

“Michigan is the birthplace of modern industrial unionism,” Lichtenstein said. “Democrats are finally being bold in a way that Republicans have always been bold.” 

Many experts juxtaposed Michigan with Virginia, which didn’t even try to repeal its right-to-work law when it had Democratic trifectas in 2020 and 2021. 

“Michigan doing so not only reclaims their traditional role at the front line of the labor movement, but it suggests that to be a Democrat in the 2020s means you have to be pro-union,” Loomis said. 

Biden has centered unions in his speeches and trips much more than Democratic presidents in recent history, and the pre-2020 campaigns of Sens. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) and Bernie Sanders (I-VT) centered both workers’ rights and labor reforms. Some point to President Donald Trump’s 2016 victory as helping plant these seeds, as Democrats became acutely aware of increasing erosion in support from white, blue-collar workers, and to a lesser degree from working-class Latinos and African American men, that could doom them to prolonged electoral peril. 

Public approval of unions, meanwhile, is at the highest it’s been since the mid-’60s. 

There are still significant obstacles to a tidal wave of union strength upending economic inequality and shifting power back to workers. 

“Until labor law changes, unions are unlikely to have a significant turnaround because it’s simply too hard to actually form a union,” Oswalt said. 

“The process of forming a union is still rigged against workers and against unions,” Richman added.

My fellow scholars are absolutely correct. But repealing right to work is the first step that a state can take in bringing unions back to the center of American life. This is something of a pleasant surprise, as it has been about 60 years since a state did this. Meanwhile, after 2010, key union stalwart states such as Wisconsin, Michigan, and West Virginia passed these hideous laws. I think negative polarization is the real issue here–while older Atari Democrats like Bill Clinton, Gary Hart, and Michael Dukakis were highly indifferent to outright hostile to unions (Hart was basically anti-union after 1972), younger Democrats not only see unions as necessary but also hate Republicans, which drives them to support institutions such as unions that help Democrats. For the same reason, Republicans no longer give even the most superficial talk about unions that Mitch McConnell, for example, did in the 1970s when he was a young politicians. It’s total war because unions support Democrats.

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