Skip to main content

Will Obama help unions?

By Nelson Lichtenstein, Special to CNN
updated 5:13 PM EST, Thu December 13, 2012
Michigan State Police in riot gear push back against protestors during a rally against right-to-work legislation at the Michigan State Capitol on Tuesday, December 11, in Lansing, Michigan. The House approved two controversial right-to-work measures that would weaken unions' power. Michigan State Police in riot gear push back against protestors during a rally against right-to-work legislation at the Michigan State Capitol on Tuesday, December 11, in Lansing, Michigan. The House approved two controversial right-to-work measures that would weaken unions' power.
HIDE CAPTION
Michigan bills pass amid large protests
Michigan bills pass amid large protests
Michigan bills pass amid large protests
Michigan bills pass amid large protests
Michigan bills pass amid large protests
Michigan bills pass amid large protests
Michigan bills pass amid large protests
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
>
>>
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Nelson Lichtenstein: Will more states pass right-to-work laws like Michigan?
  • Lichtenstein: The potential spread of the laws in the North is startling and ominous
  • He says opponents try to paint the union, not the employer, as oppressors of workers
  • Lichtenstein: President Obama need to defend trade unionism in its hour of need

Editor's note: Nelson Lichtenstein is MacArthur Foundation chair in history at the University of California, Santa Barbara, where he directs the Center for the Study of Work, Labor and Democracy. He is co-editor of "The Right and Labor in America: Politics, Ideology, and Imagination."

(CNN) -- Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder's stunning decision to sign a right-to-work law poses the question: Are these anti-union statutes, which make illegal any union contract that requires union membership or payment of dues a condition of employment, the future? During the last two years Indiana and Wisconsin have also passed laws that curb union strength and slash dues income.

"If Michigan can do it, then I think everybody ought to think about it," asserts Mark Mix, president of the National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation. Mix listed Alaska, Missouri, Montana and Pennsylvania, where Republicans enjoy large majorities in state legislatures, among the top contenders.

The potential spread of right-to-work laws in the North, even in states where voters heavily favored President Obama for a second term, is a startling and ominous development.

For decades, right-to-work laws were confined to the South or Mountain West, heavily agricultural states where new unions born during the Depression era evoked, among many employers and conservative politicians, the specter of Communism, race-mixing or both. These laws were almost all enacted in the years after the 1947 Congressional passage of the Taft-Hartley Act, which gave states the right to make illegal any collective bargaining contract that mandated union membership as a condition of employment.

Become a fan of CNNOpinion
Stay up to date on the latest opinion, analysis and conversations through social media. Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion and follow us @CNNOpinion on Twitter. We welcome your ideas and comments.



Opponents of unionism hailed these laws as insuring a "right-to-work" because they encouraged workers to take a job, even one where the wages and working conditions had been negotiated by a union, without paying the dues necessary to sustain the labor organization. To note that employers encouraged such free-loading would be an understatement. Then and now they denounced "compulsory unionism" and the "labor bosses" who sought to live high on the hog on member dues. In this imagining, it was the union, not the employer, who oppressed the workers.

Opinion: A victory for right-to-work laws

In 1958, right-to-work advocates thought the time was ripe to invade the North. A sharp recession in the late 1950s had sapped union strength at the same moment that the Senate's McClellan Labor Rackets Committee investigation had uncovered unsavory links between Jimmy Hoffa, the Teamsters, and organized crime. Urged on by conservative Republican Sen. Barry Goldwater and financed by a newly created National Right to Work Committee, these anti-union activists put right to work referenda on the ballots of California, Ohio, Washington, Kansas, Idaho and Colorado.

Sweeping law limits union power in MI
Gov. Snyder: This is good for Michigan
Obama: Unions built a stronger America
Michigan's fight over 'right-to-work'

But with the exception of Kansas, all these initiatives went down in overwhelming defeat. That was not only because labor was still a powerful force -- in Ohio union density, the proportion of all workers in a union, stood at nearly 40% -- but also because the Democrats linked their fortunes to the labor movement and to the fight against right to work. As Pat Brown, the California gubernatorial candidate put it, right to work represented "a return to the ugly and destructive law of the economic jungle."

The battle for the votes of African-Americans constituted one of the most remarkable features of these referenda. Right-to-work advocates pointed out, often quite accurately, that many American trade unions failed to adequately represent their minority members. If unions were weaker, minority workers might well get better jobs and promotions. But in Ohio and California especially that argument failed to persuade.

The NAACP distributed a pamphlet entitled "Keep Mississippi Out of California," but even without this kind of propaganda most African-Americans and Latinos knew that an imperfect union was a better friend that a non-union employer whose power and prejudices ruled the workplace unchecked by any countervailing institution.

Today, right-to-work forces are once again making a push to eviscerate unionism in its heartland. Thanks to Citizens United they have unlimited money. Thanks to globalization, slow growth, and corporate attacks, trade unionism is far weaker than in 1958.

In Ohio union density stands at 13.4%, in Pennsylvania 14.6%, in Michigan, birth state of the once powerful United Automobile Workers, just 17.5%, a disastrous drop since the industrial union heyday in the 1950s.

To staunch this anti-union assault, the Democrats have to make the defense of union rights and power a central, organic component of their message to American voters, office holders and workers -- both white collar and blue. Although Democratic legislators in Wisconsin, Michigan and Ohio have bravely fought the Republican right on this issue, President Obama has been notably missing from the action.

Obama denounced "right to work for less" in a post-election speech at a factory outside Detroit, but he was almost entirely silent on the issue both during the demonstrations that convulsed Madison, Wisconsin, in the winter of 2011, during the effort to recall Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker in the spring of the next year, and throughout the presidential campaign itself.

Obama and his advisers undoubtedly thought that if they wanted to win right-to-work states like Virginia and Florida, they better keep quite about union rights in the North. But this was and is an exceedingly shortsighted and self defeating calculation.

Trade unions stand at the core of the Democratic coalition. They are the last organizations remaining on the liberal side that can effectively appeal to white, working-class men in the Rust Belt swing states. Without the union organization and mobilization of blue collar Latinos in California, Nevada, and New Mexico those states would be almost as red as Texas.

When Obama declared his support for gay marriage, he helped consolidate a growing national consensus in favor of that right. The president and other national Democrats need to use the same bully pulpit to defend trade unionism in its hour of need, not only because their destruction threatens the living standards of our working middle class, but because these institutions are the living embodiment of democracy, interracial solidarity and personal dignity in the world of work.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Nelson Lichtenstein.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 12:11 PM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
Leon Aron says the U.S. and Europe can help get Russia out of Ukraine by helping Ukraine win its just war, sharing defense technologies and intelligence
updated 1:24 PM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
Timothy Stanley the report on widespread child abuse in a British town reveals an institutional betrayal by police, social services and politicians. Negligent officials must face justice
updated 9:06 PM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
Peter Bergen and David Sterman say a new video of an American suicide bomber shows how Turkey's militant networks are key to jihadists' movement into Syria and Iraq. Turkey must stem the flow
updated 11:16 AM EDT, Thu August 28, 2014
Whitney Barkley says many for-profit colleges deceive students, charge exorbitant tuitions and make false promises
updated 10:34 AM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
Mark O'Mara says the time has come to decide whether we really want police empowered to shoot those they believe are 'fleeing felons'
updated 10:32 AM EDT, Thu August 28, 2014
Bill Frelick says a tool of rights workers is 'naming and shaming,' ensuring accountability for human rights crimes in conflicts. But what if wrongdoers know no shame?
updated 10:43 PM EDT, Thu August 28, 2014
Jay Parini says, no, a little girl shouldn't fire an Uzi, but none of should have easy access to guns: The Second Amendment was not written to give us such a 'right,' no matter what the NRA says
updated 9:40 AM EDT, Thu August 28, 2014
Terra Ziporyn Snider says many adolescents suffer chronic sleep deprivation, which can indeed lead to safety problems. Would starting school an hour later be so wrong?
updated 9:30 AM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
Peggy Drexler says after all the celebrity divorces, it's tempting to ask the question. But there are still considerable benefits to getting hitched
updated 2:49 PM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
The death of Douglas McAuthur McCain, the first American killed fighting for ISIS, highlights the pull of Syria's war for Western jihadists, writes Peter Bergen.
updated 6:42 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Former ambassador to Syria Robert Ford says the West should be helping moderates in the Syrian armed opposition end the al-Assad regime and form a government to focus on driving ISIS out
updated 9:21 AM EDT, Wed August 27, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says a great country does not deport thousands of vulnerable, unaccompanied minors who fled in fear for their lives
updated 9:19 AM EDT, Wed August 27, 2014
Robert McIntyre says Congress is the culprit for letting Burger King pay lower taxes after merging with Tim Hortons.
updated 7:35 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Wesley Clark says the U.S. can offer support to its Islamic friends in the region most threatened by ISIS, but it can't fight their war
updated 7:26 AM EDT, Wed August 27, 2014
Jeff Yang says the tech sector's diversity numbers are embarrassing and the big players need to do more.
updated 4:53 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
America's painful struggle with racism has often brought great satisfaction to the country's rivals, critics, and foes. The killing of Michael Brown and its tumultuous aftermath has been a bonanza.
updated 4:19 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Ed Bark says in this Emmy year, broadcasters CBS, ABC and PBS can all say they matched or exceeded HBO. These days that's no small feat
updated 3:19 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Rick Martin says the death of Robin Williams brought back memories of his own battle facing down depression as a young man
updated 11:58 AM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
David Perry asks: What's the best way for police officers to handle people with psychiatric disabilities?
updated 3:50 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Julian Zelizer says it's not crazy to think Mitt Romney would be able to end up at the top of the GOP ticket in 2016
updated 4:52 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Roxanne Jones and her girlfriends would cheer from the sidelines for the boys playing Little League. But they really wanted to play. Now Mo'ne Davis shows the world that girls really can throw.
updated 12:29 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider say a YouTube video apparently posted by ISIS seems to show that the group has a surveillance drone, highlighting a new reality: Terrorist groups have technology once only used by states
updated 5:04 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Kimberly Norwood is a black mom who lives in an affluent neighborhood not far from Ferguson, but she has the same fears for her children as people in that troubled town do
updated 5:45 PM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
It apparently has worked for France, say Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider, but carries uncomfortable risks. When it comes to kidnappings, nations face grim options.
updated 1:27 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
John Bare says the Ice Bucket Challenge signals a new kind of activism and peer-to-peer fund-raising.
updated 8:31 AM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
James Dawes says calling ISIS evil over and over again could very well make it harder to stop them.
updated 9:05 PM EDT, Sat August 23, 2014
As the inquiry into the shooting of Michael Brown continues, critics question the prosecutor's impartiality.
updated 6:47 PM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
Newt Gingrich says it's troubling that a vicious group like ISIS can recruit so many young men from Britain.
updated 10:50 AM EDT, Thu August 21, 2014
David Weinberger says Twitter and other social networks have been vested with a responsibility, and a trust, they did not ask for.
updated 7:03 AM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
John Inazu says the slogan "We are Ferguson" is meant to express empathy and solidarity. It's not true: Not all of us live in those circumstances. But we all made them.
updated 8:23 AM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
Retired Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling says he learned that the territory ISIS wants to control is amazingly complex.
updated 3:51 PM EDT, Wed August 20, 2014
Cerue Garlo says Liberia is desperate for help amid a Ebola outbreak that has touched every aspect of life.
updated 1:42 PM EDT, Thu August 21, 2014
Eric Liu says Republicans who want to restrict voting may win now, but the party will suffer in the long term.
updated 11:38 AM EDT, Thu August 21, 2014
Jay Parini: Jesus, Pope and now researchers agree: Wealth decreases our ability to sympathize with the poor.
updated 8:00 AM EDT, Thu August 21, 2014
Judy Melinek offers a medical examiner's perspective on what happens when police kill people like Michael Brown.
updated 6:03 PM EDT, Tue August 19, 2014
It used to be billy clubs, fire hoses and snarling German shepherds. Now it's armored personnel carriers and flash-bang grenades, writes Kara Dansky.
updated 1:27 PM EDT, Wed August 20, 2014
Maria Haberfeld: People who are unfamiliar with police work can reasonably ask, why was an unarmed man shot so many times, and why was deadly force used at all?
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT