After an extended hiatus, we are back with another episode of the Marxist Sociology Blog Podcast! Click above to listen, or find us wherever you get your podcasts. You can find the transcript below.
Hello, and welcome to episode 3 of the Marxist Sociology Blog Podcast. It’s been a while since our last episode, but we decided to give it another try. It’s good to be back! Our hope is to make this more of a regular occurrence, so stay tuned.
I’m your host, Barry Eidlin, Associate Professor of Sociology at McGill University, and a commissioning editor at the Marxist Sociology Blog. We’re the official blog of the Section on Marxist Sociology of the American Sociological Association. You can find us online at www.marxistsociology.org.
Today’s episode is a bit different from previous episodes in that it is motivated more by current events than a current publication. Specifically, it is motivated by something very near and dear to my heart, namely labour law.
Now before you skip ahead, let me just make the case that if you care about power and inequality, if you care about workers’ rights, if you care about movements for social change, then at some level you need to care about labour law. And I think the discussion you’re about to hear does a good job of demonstrating this. So I hope you will stick with us.
So, we’re talking about labour law. But not just any labour law. We’re talking about right-to-work laws.
And the reason we’re talking about right-to-work laws is that on March 24, Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer signed legislation repealing Michigan’s right-to-work law, passed in 2012. It was the first time since 1965 that a right-to-work law was repealed, and only the fifth time ever since these laws began getting enacted in the 1940s.
But what are right-to-work laws? Despite their name, right-to-work laws (RTW laws) have nothing to do with guaranteeing a right to employment. Rather, they allow workers in unionized workplaces to opt out of paying for the costs associated with negotiating and enforcing their union contract.
That sounds pretty arcane, and it is. But right-to-work laws have been a flashpoint of social and political conflict in the U.S. for decades. Anti-union employers and politicians have spent much time and energy getting right-to-work laws passed, while unions and labour supporters have fought them tooth and nail. Just as right-to-work’s passage in Michigan in 2012 was viewed as a big win for business and a crushing defeat for labour, so too was its recent repeal hailed as a major victory across much of U.S. labor and the Left, while business groups were left licking their wounds while sounding ominous warnings about the consequences.
Why is there so much fuss about such an arcane law? Why and how to right-to-work laws matter? What do right-to-work laws actually do?
This has been a focus of my own research, but to help me grapple with these questions and more, I am joined by two scholars who know more about right-to-work laws than I do.
First, Johnnie Lotesta is an Assistant Professor of Sociology at Appalachian State University in Boone, NC. She is a political and cultural sociologist with interests in political parties, labor and social movements, public policy, and American politics. Her current book project, Rightward in the Rustbelt, conducts a comparative-historical analysis of political contests over right-to-work laws in the Industrial Midwest as a window into understanding the current crisis of representation in American Democracy – that is, the tendency of partisan lawmakers to pursue policy programs that do not align with the interests and preferences of voting publics. She has been following the developments in Michigan closely, and will be able to offer some insights into what’s going on there.
I’m also joined by Tom VanHeuvelen. He is an associate professor of sociology at the University of Minnesota. He’s interested in the long run causes and consequences of economic inequality change. His work has appeared in journals including the American Journal of Sociology, Social Forces, ILR Review, and the European Sociological Review. In particular, his piece in the American Journal of Sociology takes a deep dive into the complex and contradictory scholarship surrounding the effects of right-to-work laws, which I highly recommend. I’ll include a link in the show notes.
And now, on to the interview.
Johnnie Lotesta and Tom VanHeuvelen. Welcome to the Marxist Sociology Blog Podcast.
It’s a pleasure to be here. Thanks, Barry.
Thanks for having us, Barry. Excited to be here.
Great. I’m looking forward to our discussion. So, we’re speaking here today, it’s April 5, 2023. This is the day after we saw some big progressive wins in the state of Wisconsin and the city of Chicago, both of which potentially could lead to important wins for labor. It’s too early to tell what’s gonna happen there. But we are speaking less than two weeks after Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer signed a bill that repeals a 2012 law that made Michigan what’s called a “right to work state.”
And this is kind of a big deal. It attracted national media attention, and I would say rightly so. It was really the first time since 1965 that a right-to-work law has been repealed in the United States and only the fifth time ever since these laws began getting enacted in the late 1930s and 1940s. And it was correctly understood as a big win for labor. But I think there’s a big question as to how and why it’s a big win. So, before we get into the details of this, Tom, I just wanted you to start out and briefly summarize for us first what are right to work laws? And number two, what are they supposed to do?
Yeah, sure thing. So, right to work laws were one provision of a broader set of push backs against the major labor victories in the 1930s. Like through the Wagner Act unions won a bunch of rights, like the right to organize, the right to strike. Just about as soon as labor started to get these large national victories, interest groups, business groups began to mobilize and organize and push back. Right to work laws target something called union security agreements, which are basically requirements for employees to provide some kind of material contribution to unions as a condition of employment, whether that be union membership itself or in more recent decades, some kind of financial contribution.
So, like fair share fees or agency fees?
Exactly. And so, right to work laws are local policies that are passed. So, they’re passed at the state level. Currently, I think that more than half of US states have right to work laws, half the US population is under some kind of right to work law. Some folks described all public sector workers as under a de facto right to work status after the 2018 Janus Supreme Court case.
Right to work laws have motivated activism, political fights, the mobilization of a lot of human and financial resources on the ground for nearly a century now. If you just look at people fighting over these laws you would think that they’re a really big deal and should be very consequential. It’s hard for a certain policy to maintain almost a century long fight.
But then you turn to the social scientific literature and there’s not a lot of certainty about how these laws translate straightforwardly into particular outcomes. So, there’s some research that would suggest that union numbers decline after these laws are passed, not dramatically, but modestly. You know, there’s some research from the late 1980s that shows that unions tend to have lower odds of successfully being recognized and organizing in the workplace when right to work laws are passed. And then when they are successful, they mobilize and organize smaller workplaces. Mike Wallace and his team have shown in some recent research that union membership tends to decline after right to work laws are passed. It’s kind of what you would expect for a law that targets union power.
Maybe if we could just interrupt here. Either you or Johnnie, could you talk a bit about why pro-business groups settled on right to work as this chosen policy? So, why target unions security? There are all these different ways that you could attack labor and that groups do attack labor unions, but why right to work specifically? What’s the logic behind that?
I think it’s a great question, Barry, and probably one that varies historically and from place to place. It’s worthwhile noting, and I think we’ll get into this probably a little later, that no or very few proponents of right to work today would say that it’s about weakening unions, right? They have other frames for justifying these laws.
But I think it’s useful that Tom alluded to this surge in union organizing and union wins in the 1930s and early 1940s. And right to work, by my understanding, was really a policy response to that. And why right to work in particular? There’s a couple of reasons for that, but one is a matter of what tools are available to local business communities and local business leaders and their political allies in the States. And so the Taft Hartley Act of 1947 amended the Wagner Act in order to give states the discretion on how to restrict or not certain provisions of union security agreements, including the right of a union and an employer to agree to union security contracts. So, compared to things like the right to association or just the basic right of forming a union, this restriction on union security agreements is one space in which states and indeed local governments have true jurisdiction over labor law compared to the federal government.
And so I think that was really seen as an opportunity to put limits in the place of union organizations, especially at a time when the federal government, by and large, right was following in line with this liberal-labor coalition and was making advances that, by American standards, were quite pro-labor.
Do you want to add anything, Tom?
Yeah, well, I think I agree with all that. Maybe just two other points to add on. One, it addresses basic concepts of what a worker is in the United States, right? It really helps to define an American worker as isolated, fragmented and atomized, right? They are a single, individual unit with single individual unit freedoms. And, I think, that’s easier to manage if you’re an employer.
My read of studies of right to work there’s this great quote that Alex Hertel-Fernandez has from the State Policy Network, and somebody from that group argued that they were pushing right to work laws at the state level in one way to defang and defund their political opponents to create more business friendly social environments. So you know, it’s the idea that these laws are potentially effective at fragmenting workers, reducing a variety of resources that are available to unions, and that allows for market logics to morph and better thrive in the states where they’re passed.
Yeah, and I think it’s also important to mention that it’s no accident that these emerged primarily in the Jim Crow South of the 1930s and 40s. There’s the famous role of Vance Muse, the Christian businessmen’s association leader, in tying these right to work laws to an effort to retain segregation in the workplace by pitting, building on what you were saying, Tom, about the anti-solidaristic elements of right to work to give workers the option to opt out of these unions that are forcing white workers into the same unions as their black union siblings.
Yeah, I think that’s exactly right, Barry. And the Reuther Library at Wayne State University has some fascinating documents tracing like…I was able to pull up some old advertising materials from the National Right to Work Committee, and there is very much a racial undertone to this messaging. And it’s about being a free worker and not being chained, if you will, to the union movement. And I think, from what I found, this messaging was targeted at both black and white workers, right? So again, really trying to prevent interracial solidarity in the American labor movement.
Yeah, and I guess the other thing I’ll add is that from my own research is that it is about why right to work specifically I think is that it is a consequence of the rights-based framework that the Wagner Act establishes. So, the Wagner Act establishes the federal right to join a union and so Right to Work provides this federal right to not join a union. You know, the Taft-Hartley Act is really shot through with all this framework of trying to right the scales essentially, the idea that the Wagner Act threw the labor-capital relationship out of whack and that this is an effort to balance the scale, so to speak. And so you balance the right to join a union with the right to not join a union.
Anyway, but so that’s a bit about the history and what these laws actually do. And we’ll get into some of the complexities surrounding right to work laws and specifically about their effects in a minute, but before we do that, I do want to jump forward to the present and talk a bit about the context surrounding the Michigan repeal. So, Johnnie, you’ve done a bit of digging into this. Could you just briefly lay out for us how and why the repeal in Michigan came to pass and why now?
Yeah, totally. So it’s probably useful to just specify what was actually repealed and what did it do, right? So back in 2012, the Michigan legislature, which at the time, was controlled by Republicans and also had a Republican governor. So they passed actually two statutes. Two right to work statutes, one governing private sector employees, and one governing public sector employees. So this most recent repeal that just passed repeals both of those statutes, though, it’ll have different impacts for private and public employees, which has to do with the recent Janus ruling in the Supreme Court. But in any case, these two laws were repealed.
And why now? Well, the short answer to that is because just now, for the first time in 40 years, Democrats regained control of all branches of the Michigan government, or I should say all lawmaking branches of the Michigan government. So they retained control of the governorship. So Gretchen Whitmer was reelected governor in 2022. And then they were able to secure slim majorities in both the State House and the State Senate.
And why is this a priority for Democrats? You know, I don’t have a solid answer for why that’s the case for Democrats now. But I do have a few observations. So repealing right to work was a key priority for Democrats and labor unions in Michigan, even before the legislation was formally adopted. And this has been a key talking point in Democratic campaigns in the state since the law was enacted, right? But they never had the governing majorities to do it unilaterally. So now, we have the governing majorities, or Democrats have the governing majorities.
What do we make of that? I think it’s interesting to note that the champions of right to work repeal this time around were some of the same Democrats leading the charge against right to work when it was first introduced in 2012. So Gretchen Whitmer, the current governor, was the Democratic minority leader in the state senate at the time. You also have more newly elected Democrats who not only have union roots, but who were around at the time of right to work’s introduction in Michigan, and recall that fight, and that includes the repeal bill sponsor, Regina Weiss. So you have this legacy connecting the Democratic Party of the early 2010s with this new majority that was just elected.
The second point that I’d make is that the appeal, like the initial right to work statutes, was passed strictly along party lines, right? Not a single Republican voted for the repeal, at least not to my knowledge. And, in their opposition to repeal, Republicans reiterated their key arguments from 2012, saying things like Michigan needs to keep its right to work law in order to keep the state attractive to employers. And if right to work were to be repealed the state is likely to lose business and investment opportunities. And the third observation I’d make is that Democrats had just barely enough votes to pass the repeal, right? So they have only a one seat majority in both chambers.
They need absolute party discipline to make this happen.
Exactly. You need absolute party discipline. And so, to me, this all suggests that the tides are not necessarily turning in labor’s favor. Although labor is certainly celebrating this particular legislative outcome. This repeal does not represent a profound shift in partisan thinking on right to work. The parties are largely taking the same positions and using the same talking points they did in 2012.
So I think it remains to be seen what will become of this democratic majority into the future. And, to me, I think the real interesting question is, can Democrats build this into a durable majority with a clear mandate for policy change? And I think time will tell.
So that’s good to have a sense of what’s going on in the here and now, but I think it would be good also to just back up and segue into your actual research, which is about how Michigan, which is, of course, in many ways the cradle of the modern US labor movement, came to become a right to work state, which is an interesting puzzle in and of itself. So could you lay out that story for us?
Yeah. I’ll do my best to try to be brief. So, you’re right. I agree that it is very puzzling that an industrial Midwestern state, particularly the state of Michigan, would adopt a right to work law. And this becomes even more puzzling when we actually look into the legislative history of right to work laws in Michigan. And the fact that when right to work laws were first spreading across the United States in the 1940s and 1950s, they were sidelined not by Democrats but by Republican leadership.
And so, in my book, I try to illustrate how for decades right to work laws were not only opposed by Democrats, but were really understood as a political pariah for Republicans. So the key question then is how do we get to this Republican Party in Michigan and in other industrial Midwestern states, where you have this Republican Party that, for a long time, was in alignment with the liberal-labor coalition?
The George Romney Republicans.
Exactly. They did things like, they invited leaders of labor unions and labor federations to their conventions, right? Labor had a seat at the table. So how do we get from that to, come 2010, a Republican Party that is very explicitly anti-labor, and which is taking up right to work laws and other restrictive labor reforms as a key banner of their platform?
And I traced that shift to strategic maneuvers by mid 20th century business associations and political professionals who aimed at consolidating small and private business in particular as a formidable political force within Midwestern state Republican parties. And so, I particularly traced the formation of new organizational forms, such as statewide PAC networks, advocacy organizations, and conservative think tanks, alongside this embracing of new political strategies that really broke with the political status quo of the time.
So these are doing things like making primary endorsements, or business associations, in particular, and what sociologists have called astroturf organizing, right? And these things seem commonplace today, but they really were state of the art and a shift from the norm at the time that they were introduced from the late 1970s through the 1980s.
And so, I argue that what this did is it really changes the political terrain in Michigan, from a terrain where small and private business are really on the outskirts of the Republican Party, and they’re trying to curry favor with both parties, to a situation where they’re really holding this interstitial position, like in connecting all these important networks in subfields in state politics, including political fundraising, policy, research, opinion polling, and law.
And so, all of that creates a condition that, come 2010, once you see this big wave Republican election, small and private business in Michigan is uniquely situated to marshal these networks and resources to make right to work happen, even though the initiative met with strong opposition from the legislature, including explicit opposition from then Senate Majority Leader. And so, now that business has this position, they’re able to do all of these things to basically discipline the caucus into voting yes.
Interesting. So now, we’ve got a bit of the history and the politics surrounding right to work in Michigan specifically, but I think it’s important to to dig into this bigger question, which we’ve started to dig into, of how and why right to work actually matters.
We’ve talked about the history of how these laws come into being. And there’s obviously a big political context of the backlash to the Wagner Act and stuff like that. And there’s certainly an intention as to how they’re supposed to work. But there’s a lot of contention as to how they actually work in practice, right? And I’ve done my own deep dive into the scholarship on the effects of right to work. But, Tom, I brought you here because you’ve actually gone a step further than me. And you’ve actually gone and replicated a lot of these studies on the effects of right to work for your 2020 article in the American Journal of Sociology, so I couldn’t think of a better person than you to bring on to summarize for us what the existing scholarship on the effects of right to work has actually shown.
You’re too kind Barry. So I think that the starting point to think about what we would expect right to work laws to do would be what do unions do for things like earnings and inequality? And I would argue that, across the social sciences, there’s a surprising consensus of the importance of unions for economic well-being, especially for folks at the middle and lower end of the earnings distribution.
Unions tend to raise wages, especially for folks who are middle income and lower income. Unions tend to raise wages for folks who are not in unions, but in places where unions are powerful, whether that’s unionized industries, states, cities, occupations. Unions compress the earnings distribution, both for union members and for non-union members. Some recent studies by economists have argued that the combination of minimum wage change and union decline are responsible for two thirds of the wage inequality that we’ve seen since the 1980s. Some work that I’ve done with Zach Parolin shows that, for a cohort of baby boomer men that you can track over the entirety of their careers, a unionized career is worth about a million extra dollars in your pocket.
So unions are really important for reducing inequality and raising wages. So then, we have this policy that is pretty straightforwardly targeted at lowering union power and folks seem to suggest that it does. You would think that would have an effect on how unions affect earnings inequality. And it’s so weirdly mixed in terms of what people find. Some folks find that it does nothing. Some folks find that right to work laws unleash economic dynamism and increase wages and reduce poverty. Some folks find that right to work laws lower earnings and increase inequality.
In my paper, I find that right to work laws increase inequality sometimes and in some places if they’re able to be passed in times in places where labor is particularly strong. So, in terms of economic outcomes, it’s a bit of a weird puzzle. There’s not a lot of consensus or laws that are targeted at such an important social organization for the structure of the American labor market.
Interesting. This was what was puzzling to me too. When I did this deep dive into this research I came in with right to work being public enemy number one on the list of likely suspects for US union decline, and then you actually dig into the literature, and you see all these mixed results, not just for inequality, but even for union decline. But then, how do we square this? If we’re getting such mixed results, why do business groups spend so much time trying to enact these and why do Republicans spend so much time championing these laws if they get such mixed results?
Yeah that’s a good question. I think you can also turn to other maybe broader, or some might argue squishier, some might argue more institutional, some might argue more symbolic mechanisms by which right to work matters.
So there’s a great study in 2011 by Rao and colleagues that showed that Walmarts tended to relocate new openings of Walmart stores on right to work sides on state-county pairs because there would be less antagonistic pushback against their business practices. There’s a recent study by a few economists, Nick Bloom and colleagues that showed that, after right to work laws were passed in the Upper Midwest, managers started to have more aggressive, discretionary managerial approaches. You know, you weren’t as constrained by union power if you’re a manager. Others show that manufacturing plants tend to seek out right to work states for reduced labor costs for more business-friendly social contexts.
And then there’s the political side of these laws. Folks like Hertel-Fernandez and Feigenbaum have conducted really interesting studies of states that passed right to work laws, comparing them to nearby states. And union influence on local politics really quickly craters after these laws are passed. Union contributions decline. left success in the political process declines. We know that unions are one of the few social organizations that works really hard to mobilize low propensity voters and put pressure on policymakers to enact and enforce egalitarian policies. And it seems like right to work might be pretty good at squatting or minimizing that pressure. So direct, immediate within person changes in earnings or inequality changes. So it’s tricky to narrowly find an effect like that. But if you think of laws and policies as providing some symbolism that a state is open for business, allowing for a more business friendly environment, then you can see why there might be so much energy around getting these laws passed.
It’s interesting to see that, I mean, your research is focused primarily on inequality, but I think, if you look at even on membership, that the expectation with right to work is that you’re supposed to get these legions of free riders who, if they can get something for nothing, that workers are just going to quit the union and still get the benefits.
But the effects really seem to be fairly marginal. There is a decline, but I was just looking at the Michigan numbers, and if we just look at the private sector, which is all this affects, as Johnnie said because, well, we’ve got this Janus decision that retains right to work provisions for the public sector, if we just look at the private sector, we’re looking at maybe 39,000 free riders. So workers who are covered by a collective bargaining agreement but are not union members. 39,000 in the entire state, where you’ve got close to 4 million private sector workers. That can’t be what’s driving either union decline, or what’s getting everybody so exercised, right?
So, Johnnie, the story that Tom is telling, he’s got this idea that the symbolic role of right to work is driving these broader trends, how does that line up with your own analysis on the ground of efforts to pass right to work in Michigan, Indiana, and then the failed attempt in Ohio?
Yeah, I’d say that it totally aligned. So thinking about right to work in those specific cases, it’s really difficult as a sociologist, let alone a historical sociologist, to attribute intent to historical actors. But there is enough preponderance of evidence that, at least for some of these right to work proponents, that there was indeed a belief that right to work would shift the political balance to make a more, they would describe it as a more equal playing field between business and labor, right? And so a key example of this is right to work was a longtime goal of conservatives, and in particular conservative business leaders in Michigan, and it was described as this Holy Grail, is what one of my respondents described it as. This thing that some folks wanted, but felt like it was never going to be achievable.
And part of the reason it held this symbolic status is that there was a belief that something like right to work was really necessary to loosen labor’s sway over the Democratic Party and the ability to elect Democratic majorities. And you see language that hints at this from new business associations and advocacy groups that are popping up in Michigan in the early 2000s. Sometimes it’s coded language. It’s often not explicit, unless it’s obviously to an audience of allies, right? But it’s about this language of leveling the playing field.
And then, you combine with that, I think, a real belief that right to work is this economic panacea, particularly for ailing post industrial economies. So, actually, for a different project, I did some digging into state business climate rankings, and those do indeed take into account the presence of a right to work law. And that is a very concise, compelling synoptic device by which lawmakers assess their state’s economy and how they’re doing. And so, in the case of Indiana and Michigan, you had policy people and business site selection professionals telling these lawmakers, “Well, the reason you’re getting passed up is because you don’t have a right to work law. I have clients who won’t locate in a state because of a right to work law”. So even if, in those instances, the information might be anecdotal, it adds to this generalized belief that “If we want to be a state that’s open to business and see job growth and investment, we’ve got to have a right to work law”. Particularly when there’s neighboring states that have them.
Yeah. So, what I’m hearing from both of you is that at some level, we’re talking about right to work having this symbolic power, right? That it’s not the direct effects of right to work. So even if the specific provisions of right to work laws might not be directly affecting the labor market and unions by creating more free riders that then creates more financial burden for unions that then defunds them and encourages people to quit, we’re still seeing this process where the law as a whole sends signals that have real political and economic effects. Does that make sense given what your research has found?
I think so. I would be curious to hear Tom on this, because I do wonder what might be driving that difficulty? But I do think that this law, laws in general and this law in particular carry symbolic value.
Symbolic value that really matters.
Right. Symbolic value that really matters. It matters because it drives political action. It drives people’s conception of the possible, right? So symbolic as diffuse, right? And symbolic not to say, “Oh, it doesn’t matter”. It matters a lot.
And we’ve been talking about the business perspective, but I think it matters on the labor side as well. So, I haven’t done interviews with workers on the ground in Michigan in the lead up to this decision. But my mind goes to this question of what is at stake in this for them? What does right to work symbolizes for them? And that is informed by these anecdotal observations, right? I now live in North Carolina, which is a right to work state.
The lowest density state in the United States.
Is it really?
Trades places with South Carolina every now and then.
There’s a lot of competition for that place. That’s impressive.
Yes, exactly. Yeah, it’s anecdotal evidence, right? But I found that when I talk to workers, and they have grievances or they have issues and if a question of a strike comes up, or a question of talking to a union comes up, sometimes the response will be, “Well, no. We can’t do that because we’re a right to work state.”
And in some cases, they’re correct. They may not have a legally protected right to strike in the case of public employees, or a right to enter into collective bargaining agreements, also the case of public employees here in North Carolina, but it’s not because of a right to work law. And so, I do think that right to work sends this message that the law and the policy environment are not going to have your back if you want to advocate for your rights as a worker.
So it shapes people’s expectation of what’s possible, even though being a right to work state has nothing to do with your ability to strike, your ability to join a union, your ability to bargain collectively. It has no effect on that, but it does affect people’s sense of what their scope of action is.
Yeah, I agree with all that. I think that that’s really nicely said. Johnnie, your anecdotal evidence, that reminds me of that definition by Bruce Western back in the late 90s of institutions, which are the congealed outcomes of previous power struggles. And it seems like folks believe that about right to work, right? That the law was passed, and that has resolved the question about whether unions are a viable option in North Carolina.
And, hey, we’re three sociologists, right? So symbolism matters. It’s important. It helps establish boundaries of what is possible and what is desirable and what you can reasonably expect to get out of life. That is developed through symbolism, through institutions, through norms, through patterns. And I think that, yeah, right to work probably matters insofar as it contributes to that.
But it’s very difficult to find those in a regression table.
It challenges the state of the art of how you can find a causally identified effect, right? It would be great if laws worked like taking a Tylenol, and you had a stable set of people who took the Tylenol or the placebo, and you could watch immediately afterwards, right? But laws that target broad issues of business-friendly climates, it’s a lot trickier, right? It’s a lot more diffuse, and it requires a lot more creativity to figure out what’s going on.
Yeah, and I think that actually points to sort the bigger issue, which points at why this is such a hard effect to measure, which is that right to work laws invariably happen in this broader historical political context, right? You can’t just isolate, which makes the independent effect of right to work so hard to measure, right?
So what often is happening is that you’ve got, and I think that what your paper does so well, Tom, is show when this stuff matters, when there’s a lot at stake, when you’ve got a period of existing union decline, the right to work law comes in and ratifies that prior process of decline, which is the result of these power struggles, right? And it might have these amplifying effects later through its symbolic power, but it’s this signaling event that is related to that inextricable set of political and historical factors that are surrounding it.
Yeah, for sure. There’s probably a lot of like variation of how these laws contribute depending on the broader national climate, the local constellation of policies, broader trends, right? It probably matters whether these laws are passed to create union decline, to halt unions from organizing, or just like an after the fact triumph of “Hey, we did it. We solved the labor question.” You can think about a social situation or a hypothetical situation where unions have been outlawed by penalty of death. And that law comes first. So there’s zero union members in the state. And then a right to work law is passed afterwards. Like no, that second one is just reaffirming what happened before, right? And there are no union members to be affected by it.
So maybe, just to start wrapping things up and bringing it back to the present, I’d like to hear your takes on what you expect to be the effects of right to work repeal in Michigan, and whether this is going to, I mean, I think, Johnnie, you already said that you don’t think it signals a shift in the, certainly in terms of a partisan alignment surrounding right to work. But if we think about the symbolic role of passing right to work in increasing inequality and in reducing union membership, and all the other anti-union, anti-worker effects, how much can this repeal potentially reverse these kinds of things?
My sense is a lot of that depends on what unions and worker movements do going forward. One scenario is that this emboldens workers and emboldens union organizations. So, again, yes, there are free riders in Michigan that once the contracts are updated and the law goes into implementation and all these things, there will be some gains. They might not be huge gains. There will be gains in resources. But then, I think the question is a) how are those resources then deployed into building a conscious and robust and diverse movement, and b) regardless of those particular or specific financial resources that unions may get access to, how does the labor movement see itself and organize itself going forward?
To the extent that workers see this repeal as a signal of their ability to really have a voice in the political process to impact political outcomes, and to organize and bargain for better working conditions and wages, then I think it’s super promising. But I think some of that falls on union leadership to really seize this moment as a moment of bubbling labor power.
What do you think, Tom?
So, to begin, I would just say that if you spent the last decade just following me around, listening to my predictions of the future, and betting on the exact opposite happening, you would be automatically wealthy. So take this with a grain of salt.
But I’m a little unsure, and I tend to be a little bit pessimistic. You know, I think that there are real differences between getting the toothpaste out of the tube and getting it back in. I do wonder if it is more of a symbolic work that kind of operates to dislodge the idea of labor from politics and create a broader sense of anti-labor or labor market institutions, ideas, practices, the repeal might not be just as equally consequential as getting the law in place. That tends to be my prediction. But I’m really unsure. Like you said, we’ve only last seen this when Indiana repealed back in the mid 1960s. It’s kind of new uncharted territory. So, we’ll see.
But if we think about the implementation of these right to work laws, particularly in the current time period, because I think, keeping in mind your research, Tom, we need to be very situational in our analysis of the past right to work laws, but I think it’s pretty clear that in the more recent era, starting maybe with Oklahoma in 2001, starting there and going forward, that these are clearly laws where you’ve got this process of union decline, and the law signals this prior process of union decline.
But it doesn’t seem that this repeal is that in reverse, right? We’re not seeing necessarily an upsurge of labor. We’ve got the political realignment in the legislature, but we don’t have a revival of labor on the ground in Michigan, and then there’s a signal by the repeal. I will say that it is symbolically important and potentially substantively important that the repeal happened almost exactly at the same time that you have this leadership transition in the United Auto Workers, which is the most important union in Michigan, which has long been a key player in the political realm and also in setting the pace economically in many Michigan labor markets and probably the entire state. And so, the fact that you have this repeal coming on the heels of the election of this new reform leadership that is anti-concessions and much more militant in the UAW maybe pairs well together to provide a bit of hope. Anyway, on that note, go ahead.
I would just note too, in addition to repealing right to work, the Democrats reinstated prevailing wage, which once implemented will have an immediate effect on wages for workers covered by that law. So I guess I’m feeling cautiously optimistic. Let’s see what happens.
This is happening in a moment too where labor, I should say workers, because it’s not labor with a capital L, are doing really interesting things across the United States. We have the organizing drives at Amazon and Starbucks. Jobs with Justice is really fascinating to me. So you have all of these campaigns that are experimenting with all of these different approaches to doing what it is that unions do, right? In some cases, they’re going the traditional collective bargaining route. In other cases, they’re really working to build workers as a broader social movement. And so, yeah, I guess that’s just to say, getting right to work is important, but one tick among others in this broader story.
Barry Eidlin 56:34
Thanks to both of you, Johnnie Lotesta and Tom VanHeuvelen. I really appreciate you taking the time to speak today.
Tom VanHeuvelen 56:47
This was a treat. Thanks, Barry.
Johnnie Lotesta 56:49
Yeah, it was fun. Thanks, Barry.
Thank you for listening to this episode of the Marxist Sociology Blog podcast. I’m your host, Barry Eidlin. Thanks to the Section on Marxist Sociology of the American Sociological Association for sponsoring the blog and this podcast, and thanks to our editor in chief, Gretchen Purser. Thanks also to Sarah Hurd for invaluable technical assistance. For more accessible summaries of current Marxist sociological research, check us out online at www.marxistsociology.org. Until next time, stay inquisitive, and never underestimate the power of the organized working class.
Image: Right to Work is Wrong by Joe Brusky, via Flickr