Here in Michigan we are very familiar with the inherent falseness of “Right to Work”. We had a lame duck legislature along with a governor that “never had it on my radar” and together they moved a state that was synonymous with labor rights into the proverbial Twilight Zone. The Supreme Court recently held oral arguments on a case that is expected to be corporate America’s “Right to Work” law for the public sector. Janus v. AFSCME if adopted will create an open shop for public workers, where from sea to shining sea they will be able to receive the benefits of a union without having to pay dues, in other words freeload.
In open shops, public or private, a union has a legal duty to represent all employees who are covered by a collective bargaining agreement, whether they choose to be members or not and whether they pay dues or not. This has the understandable effect of division, hard feelings and animosity and there are many in the labor movement that are floating the idea that we should become “Members Only” unions. To reform labor law so unions would not represent all workers, just dues paying ones, effectively ending the “exclusive representation” clause of most contracts.
On first blush, it sounds like a good idea but let’s take a look at what happened in Tennessee. When Republicans took over as the states majority in 2010 their priority was to reform the states collective bargaining law for public school teachers with the stated intent to undermine the largest and most powerful union in the state – the Tennessee Education Association (TEA). Called the Professional Educators Collaborative Conferencing Act (PECCA), it requires a process called “interest based bargaining” between two teams, one representing teachers and one representing the school board. They refer to this as “conferencing” and the goal is to produce a legally binding Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) that covers all the teachers in a district whether they belong to a union organization or not. It also forbids the MOU from including language that makes any one organization the “exclusive agent” (goodbye collective bargaining) of the teachers.
The process requires the teachers to have a secret ballot to choose who will represent them at “conferencing”. Seats are earned in proportion to the votes received. This fragmentation is leading to organizations that bill themselves as alternatives to the established labor unions. These organizations have very different goals and resources and have evolved to challenge the TEA union for these seats. One, the Professional Educators of Tennessee (PET), which has ties to deep pocketed organizations pushing education privatization (read Koch brothers) and anti-union legislation, has risen to the forefront. They claim to represent teachers while also supporting corporate interests. In “conferencing” their presence has indicated that the teachers are divided, giving management the impetus to approach issues once thought untouchable with a renewed vigor. PET often opposes union demands and sides with management, undermining the union at the conferencing table. This does nothing but weaken the membership and the collective bargaining process.
Buoyed by this success the next step in the conservative playbook is the one that poses the most danger to the UAW. In another twist on the English language the GOP is quietly pushing “Workers Choice” legislation in many states. This would eliminate the legal duty of unions to be required to represent non-members AND allow these workers to negotiate their own private contract with the employer. I can see it now…Republican stalwarts spinning this as a “favor” to unions, taking the dead weight of all those non-union workers off our shoulders. Almost brings a tear to my eye. Almost.
So…we need to be very careful. While the “members only” tactic sounds good at first blush, in reality it has a very dark side. It divides workers, weakens unions, and plays into the hands of our enemies. To fight it we HAVE to do what we’ve always done, work day in and day out for our members. Fight to keep our members and fight to return wayward souls to our family. Collective bargaining is only strong when we stand together. We can succeed because we have to. Unions are still the heart and soul of the middle class and we can’t let our fellow Americans down.