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Michigan legislators pass right-to-work bill as police attack protesters

By Shannon Jones
7 December 2012

The World Socialist Web Site and the Socialist Equality Party condemn Thursday’s police attack on union members and other protesters opposing right-to-work legislation in Michigan. Eight protestors were pepper sprayed and arrested inside the state’s capitol building in Lansing when they attempted to move past state troopers guarding the Senate floor.

The demonstrators were part of a crowd of thousands of workers and young people who descended on the capitol where the legislature was preparing to vote on the bill, titled Workplace Fairness and Equity Act, banning collective bargaining agreements that require workers to pay dues or fees to unions.

Within hours of each other Thursday afternoon and evening, the Republican-controlled House of Representatives and Senate passed parts of the legislation in both chambers. Three bills, which cover both private and public sector workers, will be consolidated into one and voted on over the next several days. Republican Governor Rick Snyder—who first said that such legislation was not on his agenda—has announced he will sign the bills into law. Republicans are rushing the legislation through the lame-duck session before they lose the necessary seats to pass it.

The right-to-work bill is a blatant attempt to intimidate workers and a step towards the criminalization of any collective resistance by the working class. It is part of an effort by the American ruling class to roll back gains won by workers over decades of bitter struggle.

Reports indicate that about 200 protestors were inside the capitol building when the state police put it in “lockdown mode,” preventing anyone else from entering or leaving. “We will not have another Wisconsin in Michigan,” state police Inspector Gene Adamczyk said, referring to the mass protests that erupted in February and March 2011 against anti-worker legislation introduced by Governor Scott Walker.

The capitol was later reopened under a judge’s ruling, and hundreds of workers and other protesters rushed in.

The drive for passage of the bill follows the defeat of a union-supported referendum in the November general elections that would have amended the state constitution to bar such legislation. The current legislation is considered to be immune from being overturned by popular referendum because it contains an appropriation of state funds. Appropriation bills cannot be repealed through the referendum process.

Michigan would be the 24th state to enact right-to-work legislation and the second Midwestern industrial state to adopt such a law. Neighboring Indiana adopted right-to-work legislation earlier this year. In moving to adopt the measure Governor Snyder cited the example of Indiana. He claimed 90 companies had decided to relocate to the state following passage of its right-to-work bill.

In targeting Michigan, one of the most heavily unionized states in America, supporters of right-to-work legislation have taken the measure of the unions, in particular the United Auto Workers, whose countless betrayals have discredited these organizations in the eyes of broad layers of the working class. They calculate that the unions will not be able to mount serious resistance, or if mass protests break out like in Wisconsin, they know the unions will smother them and divert them into harmless protests allied to the Democratic Party.

Workers legitimately fear that the imposition of right-to-work laws will undermine collective bargaining rights and make effective resistance to the employers more difficult. However, the union apparatus opposes the right-to-work legislation entirely from the standpoint of its own institutional interests. The legislation threatens to undermine the income of the union executives by allowing workers to opt out of paying dues. By their logic those who do not wish to pay money for the privilege of being sold out are “freeloaders.”

The perspective of UAW President Bob King has been to attempt to persuade Snyder that right-to-work legislation is not necessary because the unions are willing to collaborate in keeping production costs low and profits high by slashing jobs, wages and benefits. According to a report in the Detroit Free Press, King told Snyder that, “Labor collectively felt like we put some really important proposals on the table about how we could work together...and about how can we de-escalate partisanship.”

Far from organizing a genuine struggle against the attacks of big business, the unions have done everything to suppress resistance. This was explicit in the failed collective bargaining referendum sponsored by the unions, which sanctioned the banning of strikes by public employees.

In Michigan, the policies of the unions have been disastrous. They have collaborated in the destruction of hundreds of thousands of jobs in auto and other basic industries while imposing round after round of concessions on workers. Detroit, where the UAW has its headquarters, was once the automotive capital of the world. Today it is little more than an urban desert, littered with abandoned businesses and homes. Now the poorest big city in America, Detroit has a child poverty rate of more than 50 percent.

Meanwhile, the UAW, which has made “labor-management partnership” its guiding principle since the early 1980s, has overseen the slashing of wages and benefits for those workers remaining in the auto plants. Workers have no democratic control over the UAW, which function as a business partner in the impoverishment of a new generation of auto workers.

In criticizing right-to-work legislation on Thursday, President Obama’s press secretary pointed to the role of the UAW in the 2009 restructuring saying it was “a prime example of how unions have helped build a strong middle class and a strong American economy.”

The Democratic Party opposes the right-to-work bill on the tactical grounds that cuts can be imposed more effectively and with less opposition by utilizing the services of the trade union apparatus. They also rely on the unions for a substantial portion of campaign financing and foot soldiers. The Democrats’ opposition to the legislation has been toothless and unserious, involving a few parliamentary delaying maneuvers.

In Wisconsin, the Democrats boasted that before Walker was elected they had collaborated with the unions to carry out the deepest cuts in the history of the state. The unions promoted a recall campaign to replace Walker with a Democratic governor to justify the shutting down of the largest mass protests in the US in a generation, and to demobilize workers right at the point when popular sentiment was growing for a statewide general strike against Walker.

What both the unions and the Democratic Party fear and oppose is any independent movement by the working class in defense of its fundamental interests. But that is what must be organized.

The right to organize and collectively struggle is a critical democratic right, which must be defended. To do this, however, the struggle must be taken out of the hands of the AFL-CIO, the UAW, AFSCME, MEA and other pro-corporate unions.

Workers must build rank-and-file committees in every factory and workplace independent of the trade unions. These committees must be democratically elected and controlled by workers and lead the fight to defend jobs, living standards and democratic rights.

This must go hand in hand with a new political strategy. For years workers have been told that the Democratic Party is the lesser evil to the Republicans. In fact, as the last four years of the Obama administration and the brutal attacks on city workers and teachers by Mayor David Bing in Detroit have underscored once again, both parties represent the interests of the banks and the giant corporations. The working class must build a political party of its own to advance its own solution to the economic and social crisis.

In the final analysis, the defense of the democratic and social rights of working people is incompatible with the continued economic and political dominance of the wealthiest five percent of the population.

What is required is a political struggle by the working class—the vast majority of the population—to break the iron grip of the corporate and financial elite, expropriate their ill-gotten wealth and reorganize economic life along socialist lines to meet human need, not private profit. This includes the nationalization of the auto industry and the banks and their conversion into publicly run utilities so that states’ decaying infrastructure and urban and rural areas can be rebuilt and all workers guaranteed good-paying and secure jobs.