Right to Work a Man to Death

In 1958, an Indianapolis woman named Patricia Bolen wrote a letter to the Indianapolis Star about how Indiana’s right-to-work law affected her husband:

“I pooh-poohed when the right-to-work was first called a mankiller. But it is. The man I love is being killed by it. He is a carpenter, strong, capable, hard-working, able to do three men’s work, which he does. Thereby, he keeps his job, luckier than most carpenters these days.

“He retains his job by doing man-killing work, but the rest of the crew is fired each Friday. A fresh group is brought in on Monday. There is no longer a union steward whose job it used to be to see that the company provided fresh drinking water, toilet facilities, a place to change and keep dry clothes, safety precautions, etc.

“My man comes home each day thirsty, soaking wet and heartsick because eager, hard-working family men on the job are being laid off when they can’t double or triple their output. This is not an isolated case.

“I am a school teacher. I address this to other teachers, office workers, business people, and others who know first hand what the “Handley law” really is–a right-to-work-a-man-to-death law. I plead for its repeal.”

Indiana indeed repealed its right-to-work law, which Bolen named after Governor Harold Handley. Earlier this year, Indiana instituted a new right-to-work law, part of the Republican attack on organized labor throughout the union strongholds of the Great Lakes states. This week, seemingly out of nowhere, Michigan rammed a right-to-work law through the state legislature, even though Governor Rick Snyder previously called it “a very divisive issue” and said he had no interest in pursuing such a course.

But it’s hardly surprising that Snyder would change his mind. Why should organize labor trust a Republican on this issue in 2012? What’s more interesting is why organized labor was caught flat-footed. Labor has not been inactive in Michigan. This fall it put a measure on the Michigan ballot that would have enshrined collective bargaining in the state constitution. Perhaps because that measure failed despite labor’s titanic effort to elect Democrats across the country, conservatives decided to strike while labor was tired from its election efforts. Regardless, Wisconsin’s right-to-work law led to a near uprising in that state while Ohio’s was repealed by voters in a referendum last year. In Michigan, the reaction to the law has been one of shock. Labor is saying it will make Michigan Republicans pay in 2014. Maybe. But organized labor’s victories do not come from the ballot box.

Without a reinvigorated and aggressive labor movement that centers organizing and the social movement side of activism, it’s hard to see how labor will resist these attacks over the long term. The United Auto Workers of 2012 is simply not set up for an easy transition to street protests or mass mobilization. Organized labor continues to struggle to transition to the 21st century struggle. While it does so, laws pass that move employers closer to the right to work a woman or man to death.

1 Comment

  • Rosemary Feurer
    Rosemary Feurer December 9, 2012

    Erik, there is a call to action for a Wisconsin style movement in Michigan. I know people all around Illinois are being called to “please come to Lansing” to make a stand, and I will go if I can. Will it be symbolic? If the leadership has its way, they will hope that the protest is symbolic, and the energy will be channeled into electing Democrats.

    Thinking of the way things happened in December 1936-February 1937 compared to what is even possible to imagine happening in 2012 speaks volumes about the crippling of the labor movement in conjunction with the Dems. I doubt anything beyond symbolism and a small # of “witness” arrests is even being considered, but it stirs the imagination to remember the genius of working class comrades from an earlier era who would put us to shame for their smart strategic planning.

    I think it’s clear that labor unions make a mistake to focus on collective bargaining laws without a strategy for a mass movement that can energize a core base. The news reports suggest that polling indicating a majority of Michigan voters (emphasis on VOTERS) favored right-to-work in the collective bargaining bill effort made in the fall, and that’s the reason Republicans passed it, they knew they wouldn’t pay. It shows we have a long way to go.

    It’s interesting to compare what you say above to the polls Clarence Lang posted a week or so ago here. Those polls show there is so much room for a class-based politics, beginning with being unafraid to frame a class warfare politics. Labor historians have not helped us frame what has happened in recent years in light of the information of those polls vs. the limits of focus on union rights.

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