Conservatives, Labor, Michigan Republicans — April 5, 2013 at 7:04 am

Unsurprisingly, Michigan Republicans aren’t done crushing unions. Next up: eliminating exclusivity.


Somehow after Right to Work, they found yet another way to weaken unions: pitting them against each other

Back in the 1930s, our country was wrestling with the idea of labor unions and what rights they should be given. One way corporations, primarily the large automakers, used to keep unions week was implement “proportional representation”. In other words, workers would vote on which union would represent them and then they would be represented by that specific union. In other words, several unions could be bargaining on behalf of different employees at the same shop.

In his article Proportional Representation of Workers in the Auto Industry, 1934-1935, author Sidney Fine writes:

Although the drift of representation policy between 1933 and 1935 was definitely in the direction of majority rule, the automobile manufacturers were consistently able to gain administration support for the rival idea of “collective bargaining pluralism.” It was, moreover, in the automobile industry during the era of the National Recovery Administration that the only significant attempt in our industrial history was made to establish representation rights on the basis of proportional representation.

Through proportional representation, the automobile manufacturers were able to keep union members squabbling amongst themselves and forced the unions to fight for a smaller number of workers rather than cooperating for the good of all workers. It’s easy to see why “collective bargaining pluralism” was so attractive to the car makers. Fortunately, with the passage of the Wagner Act in 1935, it was sent to the rubbish bin in favor of exclusivity.

When Fine says that this was “the only significant attempt in our industrial history was made to establish representation rights on the basis of proportional representation”, it may have been true when he wrote it. It is now, however, no longer true. Michigan Republicans are resurrecting this zombie concept. Just like they are forcing progressives to re-fight the battle over women’s reproductive rights, they are now ready to re-litigate the fight over exclusivity, the representation of all workers at a given shop by the same labor union.

[S]ome conservative activists are proposing an offspring of the right-to-work legislation. They are urging Republican lawmakers to ban exclusivity clauses for public-sector unions — the state’s recognition that a union is the sole representative in bargaining for a particular group of workers.

“It does away with one of the talking points the opposition will use in the ballot campaign leading up to November 2014, because we’re all certain that will happen,” said conservative activist Gary Glenn, president of the American Family Association of Michigan.

Labor leaders said they have not ruled out asking voters next year to eliminate the right-to-work law through a ballot proposal, even after voters last year rejected the multimillion-dollar Proposal 2 initiative to enshrine collective bargaining in the state constitution.

State Rep. Mike Shirkey, the leading legislative advocate of the right-to-work law, said he has drafted but not filed a bill to eliminate exclusive representation for unions.

“The freeloader argument only exists because unions choose to put the exclusivity clauses into contracts,” said Shirkey, R-Clarklake. “I think that is the next modernization of union worker contracts in the government sector.”

Two things here. First of all, what is the American Family Association doing meddling in labor issues? The AFA holds themselves out to be a “family values” organization, mainly content to run rabidly homophobic rants and screeds on their website and to champion crushing marriage equality and women’s reproductive freedoms at every opportunity. This sudden interest in labor issues is puzzling and suggests that they are working in concert with other groups now, perhaps the anti-union conservative “think tank” the Mackinac Center.

Second, notice the argument. Shirkey and other conservatives are taking the “Right to Freeload” idea that labor supporters are using and are pretending that they are neutralizing it. Going to proportional representation does nothing of the sort. They literally are saying that it does and expecting everyone to believe it. The “freeloader argument” has absolutely nothing to do with exclusivity. It has to do with any union at all being forced to represent workers who don’t contribute to their efforts. It has to do with workers benefiting from union contracts that they didn’t contribute toward. Proportional representation doesn’t get away from that because federal law requires that all workers be covered by negotiated union contracts. From the National Labor Relations Board:

The amount of dues collected from employees represented by unions is subject to federal and state laws and court rulings.

The NLRA allows employers and unions to enter into union-security agreements, which require all employees in a bargaining unit to become union members and begin paying union dues and fees within 30 days of being hired.

Even under a security agreement, employees who object to full union membership may continue as ‘core’ members and pay only that share of dues used directly for representation, such as collective bargaining and contract administration. Known as objectors, they are no longer full members but are still protected by the union contract. Unions are obligated to tell all covered employees about this option, which was created by a Supreme Court ruling and is known as the Beck right.

It’s classic Republican misdirection. They take a rather complicated and generally unknown concept and explain it to people in a completely false way. Because most people won’t bother to check it, they buy it. Republicans repeat it over and over and over again and soon enough, it’s “common knowledge” or “accepted wisdom” despite the fact that it is completely false.

Understand this very simple fact: the push to eliminate exclusivity and return to “collective bargaining pluralism” is nothing more than an attempt to weaken unions even further. It is being done for the exact same reasons the powerful automakers in the 1930s pushed so hard for it: it puts management, a unified group, in a position of power while unions and workers fight amongst themselves for the scraps they are tossed. Pitting members of your opposition against each other is a classic technique in warfare of any sort. It should come as no surprise to anyone that conservative groups and Michigan Republicans are using it to defeat labor unions and take away their power.

[Photo credit: Anne C. Savage, special to Eclectablog]