The trade union movement in the United States of America was dealt a massive blow earlier this week as Michigan, the northern state on the Canadian border that was traditionally the ‘cradle’ of the movement, voted to pass ‘right-to-work’ legislation.
The state legislature, currently controlled by the Republican Party, passed the bill 58-51 despite a 12,000-strong protest outside the courthouse. Police with riot gear used tear gas to disperse the crowd who had turned out despite freezing temperatures to protest against Michigan becoming the 24th state to adopt this sort of legislation.
The bill passed by both the State House and Senate was signed into law by the State Governor, Republican Rick Snyder, on Tuesday evening.
The law is made up of two separate components applying to public and private sector workers that forbids agreements where employees are forced to pay union dues as a condition of employment. Critics say this will weaken union power as their funding will shrink and make it harder for workers, who will face a race to the bottom in wage and workplace rights negotiations.
However, the law’s supporters argue it prevents workers being forced to subsidise unions they elected not to join and creates greater freedom to attract business to the state.
President Obama condemned the move in a speech to a diesel engine factory in Michigan, saying:
“These right-to-work laws, they don’t have to do with economics. They have everything to do with politics.
“What they’re really talking about is to give you the right to work for less money.”
However, Republican state senator John Proos – who backed the bill – said public anger was only temporary as the they would soon see it bringing new jobs to Michigan:
“As they say in sports, the atmosphere in the locker room gets a lot better when the team’s winning.”
Although nearly half of all states have right to work laws, only Michigan and Indiana have enacted this sort of legislation in the past decade.
Commentators in the state have concluded this measure has been sped up by the increased confidence of backers of the bill due to the failure of an attempt to enshrine pro-union collective bargaining rights in the state’s constitution at the election on November 6th.