What’s the Matter With Michigan?
It seems that no matter what I do, I can’t beat my colleague here at TAI, Walter Russell Mead, into print on any significant news story. Walter does it fast and, almost invariably, does it very well. He did it again yesterday, early in the day too, on the news that the Michigan state legislature had passed two so-called right-to-work laws.
Like Walter, my sense is that this is a big deal—a turning point in our national odyssey. Like Walter, too, I see the basic facts in the same way. But unlike Walter, my sensibilities about this are bit different, possibly owing to the fact that he is the son of an Episcopalian clergyman, and I am the son of a rare Jewish member of the Teamsters union. Walter does say that, “Labor needs representation and many of the values that drew millions of working Americans into the labor movement endure.” I would go a bit further than that: Collective bargaining is all that keeps large numbers of Americans at least clingingly in the middle class at a time when globalization and automation are undermining a hard-achieved, broadly egalitarian U.S. social structure. What Republicans in Michigan have done is to attack the viability of collective bargaining. If companies can hire as many non-union laborers as they like, it is obvious that union bargaining power will essentially collapse.
Were that to happen, and were it to spread from Michigan to the rest of the nation, it might help some American businesses to keep their costs down and so better compete worldwide. That, arguably, might produce more jobs—if not necessarily more decently paying jobs. But at the same time, whether that happens or not, it will certainly produce more inequality and the social frictions that ultimately go with it, exacerbating a trend at least a quarter-century now in the making.
When I read the news from Lansing, I immediately began to think of another key turning point in the history of the American labor movement. Since few Americans today know much about that history, let me tell you a little something about it. No doubt you will see many parallels with current circumstances even before I have the opportunity to point them out.