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Commentary: Revitalizing labor?

There’s no doubt that turning Michigan into a right to work state will strike a major, and potentially even fatal, blow to unions.

Nor is there any doubt that the way that this was done was profoundly anti-democratic. Ramming a hugely significant bill through both houses on a single day is essentially unheard of.

Afterwards, State Senator Steve Bieda told me: “We’ve had more deliberative hearings on something like a commemorative license plate.” The Republicans also added some appropriations money, structuring this bill so that voters cannot attempt to collect signatures to put a repeal on the ballot.

What happened is a disaster for labor, however you slice it, and I cannot imagine anything that will prevent the governor from signing this into law. However, this could be -- just could be -- a blessing for the labor movement, even though it looks like anything but.

Here’s why.  Frankly, the labor movement has long needed to reinvent itself. One recent study found barely 12 percent of Michigan private sector workers are covered by union contracts.

More than half of government workers and teachers are unionized, but still, less than one out of five Michigan workers is in a union. The percentage of union workers, here and nationally, has declined since the 1950’s. You could make the argument that the legislature’s crude imposition of right to work just sped up what has been increasingly looking like labor’s death watch.

Michigan labor leadership has had a bad year. First, it spent millions on a foolhardy attempt to get collective bargaining enshrined in the constitution, and now this.

My guess is that a majority of the state’s voters, even those who voted down the collective bargaining amendment, don’t want right to work. They didn’t pass collective bargaining partly perhaps because they were bewildered by the number of amendments on the ballot, and partly because they didn’t want to stick things in the state constitution, which strikes me as a common sense approach.

But now those who hate unions have pulled a coup. So -- what can the unions do? Well, President Kennedy was fond of saying that the Chinese word for crisis contained the characters for danger plus opportunity.

The danger here is clearly apparent. Seems to me, however, is that the opportunity is this:

The labor movement has long needed radical change. They don’t seem to have a clue about how to organize the solitary knowledge worker trying to make a living as an independent contractor from home. That’s a problem Walter Reuther never had.

But increasingly, labor hasn’t seemed to be able to make their case to new blue-collar workers either. And I wonder in part if that‘s because there really doesn‘t seem to be a labor movement interested in the welfare of all workers these days.

For years, most unions have seemed concerned only with the particular concerns of the narrow group they represent.

As for those outside the favored circle of auto workers or electricians -- too bad. Walter Reuther may have been the last national labor leader genuinely concerned with all workers.

Maybe that, in part, is what’s happened to labor today. Whether the movement can reinvent itself is a big question. But I do know this.

It now has no choice but to change.

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio’s political analyst. Views expressed in the essays by Lessenberry are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.

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