The Battle of Lansing And Everything After

by Dennis Sanders on December 13, 2012

It’s been interesting to see what’s going on in my home state of Michigan.  As a kid, you learned how important the unions were in the state.  Most kids learned of the 1936-7 Sitdown Strike in Flint, Michgan which happens to be my hometown.  It was that event where the United Autoworkers made a name for themselves and where the Detroit automakers had to get used to labor as a partner.  For the next 70 years, the American auto industry and the UAW were partners in building the modern Michigan.

My parents came to Michigan and became autoworkers.  My mother worked at AC and Dad worked at Buick.  Of course they were union members as was every hourly worker in every plant in the United States.  As a kid, I never did understand why every hourly worker were union members whether they liked it or not.  My Mom would say in effect that they benefit from all the hard work the union did, so of course they had to be members and they had to have money taken out of their paychecks for union dues.

The passage of right-to-work legislation in Michigan this week is not going to make a big difference in my home state.  Unions aren’t going away.  Michigan will still have to deal with job losses and all the problems that come with that loss.  Maybe new businesses will choose to plant themselves in the Wolverine State, but they might come for reasons other than right to work.

What did happen this week was more symbolic than anything else.  But symbols are important and they do carry weight.  To have right to work in what is considered the cradle of the American labor movement is big.  Conservatives feel like David taking down Goliath.  Liberals are crying foul over how the idea became law.  But as Walter Russel Mead noted yesterday, this is one more sign of the passing of the “blue social model.”

But the hopes and fear of right to work really don’t make a difference to the economic climate in Michigan.  Why?  Because most of those auto jobs as well others that were covered by unions are going away.  These jobs were low-skilled jobs which because of union prodding, paid pretty well.  But even jobs in manufacturing are become more skilled.  The days when a guy could graduate high school and then end up working at Chevrolet plant are fast dissappearing.

Michigan is not going to rebound unless they have a trained workforce, which means providing more opportunities for people to get college -level education or training in vocation schools.

Cities like Detroit, Flint and Pontiac are not going to saved because of right to work.  They are not going to be destroyed because of right to work, either (these towns were destroyed long before this week).

The Battle of Lansing is a sign that the old order doesn’t work anymore.  But we don’t know what needs to come next.  What we do know is that right to work doesn’t change much.

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Don Kirk December 14, 2012 at 11:34 am

For half of my working life, I was a card-carrying, dues-paying union member. For most of the other half of my working life, I managed hundreds of blue collar employees, both in right-to-work and closed-shop States.

By far, the best workers and best work environment were in right-to-work States, where union dues-paying is voluntary and management works hard to be fair to employees so that a union complaint is never filed.

In the closed-shop States, the employees and management were enemies. Union complaints are so frequent they become routine, and the quality of management is decidedly inferior. The very best part of a right-to-work environment is the increased pride that employees have in the work they do, and the personal diligence by the management in resolving employee dissatisfaction.

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Bruce R. Gilson December 16, 2012 at 5:37 pm

I think Don Kirk’s comment is very valid. Union members tend to think of themselves and their employers as opponents. Non-union employees identify with their company, and try to help it succeed. I have never worked in a right-to-work state (except for about 4 years in Virginia) but I’ve never worked in a company that was unionized, and yet I have seen companies go out of business because of unreasonable union demands. I think that we really need a national right-to-work law, but I’m happy to see it come about state by state.

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