As the University community commemorates the accomplishments of Martin Luther King Jr. this week, we should remember his opposition to right-to-work laws, such as the one rushed through the lame-duck session of the Michigan legislature in Dec. 2012. Here are King’s words from a 1961 speech — words that members of University Lecturers’ Employee Organization are posting on their doors: “We must guard against being fooled by false slogans, such as right-to-work. It’s a law to rob us of our civil rights and job rights. Wherever these laws have been passed, wages are lower, job opportunities are fewer and there are no civil rights. We demand this fraud be stopped.”
What are right-to-work laws? Right-to-work laws allow employees to opt out of union dues, even though American labor law requires collective agreements to cover all employees in a bargaining unit. Doing so is like letting people consume government services and then decide whether they want to pay any taxes. Right-to-work laws first became a legal possibility when the federal Taft-Hartley Act of 1947 outlawed collective agreements requiring union membership as a condition of getting a job, and permitted states to pass right-to-work statutes to encourage free-riding. The earliest states to pass right-to-work laws were all in the south, but they gradually spread out of their regional stronghold. In December, Michigan became the 24th state to pass right-to-work legislation.
King understood that Taft-Hartley — and with it, right-to-work — was motivated at least as much by anti-black as by anti-union animus. He knew that the collapse of organized labor’s drive to organize the south — which was intended by Taft-Hartley — was a huge blow, not just to unions but to the civil rights movement as well.
Today, right-to-work is still an anti-union and an anti-worker measure. So what is the University, while celebrating King, doing to reduce the negative impact of right-to-work on working people and minorities in this state? So far, very little. There are nine unions at the University. On the Ann Arbor campus, seven of these unions have a direct impact on students: American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, Skilled Trades, Operating Engineers; Police Officers Association of Michigan; the Nurses’ Union; the Lecturers’ Employee Organization; and the Graduate Employee’s Organization.
The first five unions represent employees who are often invisible to students: the custodial staff, campus mail handlers, operators of the heating and cooling systems, the nurses who work in the University’s health system and campus safety officers. However, the first four play a critical role in making the campus function smoothly, and, of those, the police officers and the nurses might save your life in that rare moment of crisis. You do see the teachers in LEO and GEO every day. Together, we account for about half of all University undergraduate teaching (measured as “student credit hours”).
We should ask ourselves: What can the University do? A lot. University administrators can sit down with unions that represent about half of the workers on this campus and offer to substantially lengthen their collective bargaining agreements. Michigan’s right-to-work legislation does not come into effect until late March 2013. If the University and the unions agree to long extensions before that deadline, it would give the unions many years of protection against right-to-work. LEO is the first union to negotiate a new contract under the threat of right-to-work, and the administration could start by committing to complete the bargaining process by early March. So far, however, they’ve dragged their feet.
Last Friday, they offered a proposal that would deny the union the ability to collective bargaining benefits. Such a proposal is antithetical to LEO’s existence as a union, and creates a major roadblock for reaching an agreement in time to safeguard the union from the negative impact of right-to-work.
If you believe in King’s dream, and you understand the critical importance of revitalizing both the civil rights and the labor movement, and if that dream is to be realized, then stand up and be counted. You can support LEO by signing an online petition. You also can e-mail University President Mary Sue Coleman, University Provost Phil Hanlon and the regents to let them know you think that the University should stand with King and agree to negotiate contract extensions with all University unions before the right-to-work law takes effect.
Ian Robinson is a Sociology and Residential College lecturer. Bonnie Halloran is an Anthropology lecturer.