Tennessee and other so-called "right-to-work" states haven't seen much union-oriented labor unrest in decades, largely because it's been so long since unions in right-to-work states were emasculated. So the latest union-busting tactics in Michigan, like those recently in Indiana and Wisconsin, recall mostly distant memories, if any, for most area workers.
Still, the Michigan fray -- pitting thousands of union advocates pressed against lines of helmeted police blocking their path to the halls of a Capitol where Republican legislators were shredding their right to effective unions -- is evocative of past battles for workers' rights everywhere.
Unions in Southern states were shorn long ago of their authority to require new employees to join a union if they took a job in a business that had them. After paving the way for free-riders to enjoy union-negotiated wages, lawmakers and congressmen serving as the hand maidens of industrialists found other ways to help industry chiefs evade unions. For example, they allowed employers essentially to limit or fragment union efforts to organize workers, and to stalemate contract agreements with endless negotiations. Unions thus weakened have gradually lost their clout to negotiate wages for what once were family-wage jobs.
That distinction, and the resulting decline in wage levels, clearly prompted a shift of jobs from old-line unionized states to the low-wage states. The flux of auto-related jobs to the South -- car plants and their myriad suppliers -- reflects that. As President Obama said at a rally in Michigan this week, the right-to-work law is counter-productive for workers and, we would add, gravy for CEOs.
"These so-called right-to-work laws, they don't have anything to do with economics," Obama said. "They have everything to do with politics. What they're really talking about is giving you the right to work for less money."
The arrival of Michigan, a pivotal union-founding stronghold, as the 24th right-to-work state may well help spread the deceiving infection to other states where employees in union shops are still required either to join the union, or to pay it a fee for its negotiated benefits.
There is, in fact, a clear divide in higher wage levels, educational achievement and poverty in states that do not allow free-riders on union shops and benefits. A Notre Dame study last January found the average value of nonfarm wages and benefits in states that have not passed the right-to-work law was $65,567, versus $57,732 in those with the law.
Americans can surely see the benefit of the law to CEOs, whose compensation packages in recent decades have soared into the multi-million-dollar strata. It's no surprise that 93 percent of the wealth gains from 2000 to 2010 went to the top 1 percent of megamillionaire earners, while the rest of us share the leftover 7 percent. Nor is it a surprise that pensions for executives are leaving pension funds for thousands of their employees underfunded or bankrupt; nor that corporate profits have soared while jobs and wage gains have stagnated or gone backwards for most workers in the past two decades.
Unions may have sometimes caused some of their own problems, through feather-bedding and over-reaching job protections and grievance procedures. But these deviations have largely been corrected. What has not been corrected is the vast abuse of executives to take the lion's share of corporate profits at the expense of living-wage jobs and benefits for the employees who provide their profits. There should be a balance point for employee wages and benefits versus executive compensation and perks, but it does not exist, and won't unless unions are allowed reasonable space to negotiate for workers.