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The Battle Over the Right-to-Work Laws in Michigan: Five Key Arguments

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After much contention, two just-passed bills have made Michigan a right-to-work state. Here's a few good reads on the subject to help you get a wide perspective of the fight for labor rights.

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As of today, Michigan, the birthplace of the the Big Three car companies -- Ford (NYSE:F), GM (NYSE:GM), and Chrysler -- and subsequently the United Auto Workers union and the birth of the American labor movement, will become the 24th state to become right-to-work, which means that labor unions and employers are prohibited from making any agreements that govern the extent to which a union can require employees' membership. The lead-up to the passage of the bills today was a highly contentious, and for many, emotionally charged political rollercoaster that represented the larger issue of the growing inequality in America. Below are articles exploring the news from Michigan and what this contentious and emotional ordeal means for the American people, from the different sides of the augment for labor rights, to the spending gap between advocacy groups on both sides, to the bigger picture, to the threat of robots and robber barons (see the last article, by Paul Krugman) against the American middle class.


The Right-to-Work Laws Will Weaken Unions in a Key State
In a post on the Washington Post's "Wonk Blog," Brad Plumer explores what "right-to-work" laws actually do and how they affect a state's economy.

The most significant policy fight of the week is arguably taking place in Michigan, where Republican lawmakers are pushing through a "right-to-work" bill that would weaken labor unions in one of the country's most heavily unionized states. Why the uproar? Under right-to-work laws, employees in unionized workplaces can no longer be required to pay unions for the cost of being represented. These statutes are broadly understood to erode the influence and power of organized labor - if unions have a harder time collecting money for the services they offer, they'll have fewer resources to work with. Currently, 23 states have such laws on the books. Michigan would be the 24th - and, because of its long pro-union history, perhaps the most important. Read more...


The Right-to-Work Puts Even More Wealth at the Top
On his blog, Berkeley professor and former US Secretary of Labor Robert Reich discusses how the broad battle over American inequality finds itself in Michigan this week.

With a shrinking share of total income and wealth, the middle class and poor simply don't have the purchasing power to get the economy back on solid footing. (The wealthy don't spend enough of their income or assets to make up for this shortfall, and they invest their savings wherever around the world they can get the highest return).

As a result, consumer spending - fully 70 percent of economic activity - isn't up to the task of keeping the economy going. This puts greater pressure on government to be purchaser of last resort.

The dilemma isn't just economic. It's also political. As money concentrates at the top, so does power. That concentrated power generates even more entrenched wealth at the top, and less for the middle class and the poor.

A case in point is what's now happening in Michigan. In the state where the American labor movement was born – and where, because of labor unions, the American middle class once had the bargaining power to gain a significant portion of the nation's total income – Republicans and big money are striking back. Read more...


The Right-to-Work Victory May Backfire for the GOP
In this opinion piece for The Heritage Foundation, Chad Sekweski writes about the GOP's perceived benefits of the right-to-work bills in Michigan, as well as why Democrats lost the fight.

With a new statewide poll showing a plurality of voters less likely to vote for a governor or legislator who supported right-to-work, it remains to be seen if the Republican Party is acting with their head or their heart.

GOP leaders believe that a right-to-work atmosphere in Michigan will create new jobs and employers, but they also know that the political coup they pulled off will reap partisan rewards. After a long, steady decline in membership and political clout, the Michigan unions, once the lifeblood of the state Democratic Party, will undoubtedly see their influence fall further under right-to-work.

Yet, Dem chairman Mark Brewer, the longest serving state party chairman in the nation, may emerge stronger than ever. Brewer, who is closely tied to labor, will make the reversal of Snyder's anti-union policies Priority No. 1 for the Democrats for years.

But returning to the days when Republican legislators were pro-union is pure fantasy. Read more...


Big Dollars Unfairly Won the Right-to-Work Battle
In this article for The Nation, Lee Fang breaks down the advocacy budgets over the past four years for three different groups in the fight for Michigan's labor rights.

The measure, which will unravel unions in Michigan and likely lead to wage and benefit cuts down the road, has been long sought by powerful corporate interests and a small group of politically active billionaires.

How were they able to achieve such a success, in a historically union-friendly state like Michigan?

By most accounts, Snyder and his allies took everyone by surprise. On Tuesday evening, Snyder called a press conference to say he would be reversing himself, and would be throwing his weight for the first time behind making Michigan a right-to-work state. The day Snyder unveiled his new position on the controversial law, several business lobby groups endorsed the bill, and a $1 million television and radio ad campaign began airing in local media to encourage the public to support it. The Michigan Freedom Fund, the group airing the ad, was founded on November 5 by a campaign operative named Greg McNeilly. He is known locally for his work as GOP gubernatorial candidate Dick DeVos's campaign manager in 2006, and as an employee to a DeVos company. [See the ad here]

In the last few years, conservatives have made significant contributions to political organizations that have pushed the state to the right on core economic issues, and explicitly pushed right to work as a top goal. Read more...


Robots, Robber Barons, and a Pie That Isn't Growing the Way It Should
In his op-ed column for the New York Times, economist Paul Krugman weighs in on the state of the American economy: how technology is displacing workers, how monopoly power is increasing, how profits have surged, how wages have dropped, and how the pie just isn't growing the way it should.

Wait - are we really back to talking about capital versus labor? Isn't that an old-fashioned, almost Marxist sort of discussion, out of date in our modern information economy? Well, that's what many people thought; for the past generation discussions of inequality have focused overwhelmingly not on capital versus labor but on distributional issues between workers, either on the gap between more- and less-educated workers or on the soaring incomes of a handful of superstars in finance and other fields. But that may be yesterday's story.

More specifically, while it's true that the finance guys are still making out like bandits - in part because, as we now know, some of them actually are bandits - the wage gap between workers with a college education and those without, which grew a lot in the 1980s and early 1990s, hasn't changed much since then. Indeed, recent college graduates had stagnant incomes even before the financial crisis struck. Increasingly, profits have been rising at the expense of workers in general, including workers with the skills that were supposed to lead to success in today's economy.

Why is this happening? As best as I can tell, there are two plausible explanations, both of which could be true to some extent. One is that technology has taken a turn that places labor at a disadvantage; the other is that we're looking at the effects of a sharp increase in monopoly power. Think of these two stories as emphasizing robots on one side, robber barons on the other. Read more...
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