Dividing Ourselves From All That

Wishful thinking, legalistic hairsplitting and hysteria from the Michigan AFL-CIO

In a Feb. 15 column in the Detroit News, Michigan AFL-CIO President Karla Swift simultaneously calls for unity while demonstrating why the undeniably contentious battle over a right-to-work law is indeed necessary. 

By exemplifying the union establishment's tendency to wishful thinking, legalistic hairsplitting and hysteria, Swift shows how unions have let many workers down; why workers have lost faith in unions; and why workers shouldn't be forced to pay union dues or fees to keep a job.

Swift begins by referring to a certain Chrysler ad in which Clint Eastwood extols Detroit's recovery and pronounces it to be "Halftime in America." Swift extolls the unity that made this recovery possible, but there's a problem. Anyone familiar with Detroit's situation knows that the city has a long way to go before it can be said to have recovered, and the city is still at serious risk of having an emergency manager appointed. 

Some folks found the ad stirring, but Detroit's recovery doesn't begin until employers and people begin to move back into Detroit in substantial numbers. There's little evidence that this has actually happened. There are still too many abandoned homes and businesses. 

Just because Clint Eastwood says something in his best gravelly voice, that doesn't make it so.

From there Swift goes on to split legal hairs when she argues that "[t]here are no laws forcing workers to pay union dues or belong to a union." A worker at a unionized company is not obligated to formally join the union, but he or she must still pay what's called an "agency fee" in the place of regular union dues. The typical agency fee is precisely the same amount as regular union dues, and the worker who exerts his or her right to not join the union is still covered by the union contract and must accept the union as his or her representative if there's a grievance. The difference between joining and not joining, between paying dues and paying an agency fee, is close to nil. 

Only with a right-to-work law in place will Michigan workers be free to voluntarily give or withhold their support from a union that may or may not be serving them well.

Finally, Swift warns us that "After Oklahoma passed its right-to-work law, jobs fell by 25 percent." What isn't hysterics (really, a quarter of the state's jobs lost?) is just plain hooey. 

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, between January 2001 and December 2011 employment in Oklahoma increased by 80,000, pretty much the opposite of the employment Ragnarok that Swift claims took place.

The wishful thinking is forgivable, but the legalistic wrangling over whether or not workers are forced to pay union dues is disgraceful, and the union's numbers are, as far as we can tell, just made up. 

Swift wants Michiganders to rally and work together, but she cannot expect unity over wishful thinking, hair-splitting, and hysteria. Political divisions are regrettable, but Michigan would be better off dividing itself from all that.