Playing the ‘Freedom’ Card

The effort by the lame-duck Republican legislature in Michigan to ram through a so-called “right-to-work’ law is a subversion of democracy, pure and simple. What they could not accomplish through the electoral process, these Republicans intend to do with a blatant power play. It should not stand.

We should cheer the arrival Tuesday morning of hundreds of thousands of workers in the streets of Lansing to protest this dirty deed. They can help peel back the layers of deceit to show this legislative attack for what it is – payback to unions for helping Obama and other progressives win in November, and a defiant call to arms on behalf of their corporate underwriters, the sponsors of their lost election.

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Protestors rally Dec. 6 at the state Capitol in Lansing, Mi., before police turned them back with pepper spray. (AP Photo/Carlos Osorio).

Thus far, however, the lesson in Michigan for those who disagree is “Duck!” Tens of thousands of protesters mustered force on Dec. 6, the same day the bill was introduced. They were pepper-sprayed by the police as the state senate held its voting session behind locked doors. No hearing. No discussion. No justice.

There have been other modern-day subversions of democracy by state legislatures, such as Pennsylvania’s 1996 lame-duck passage of electric utility deregulation, pushed through by future energy czar Tom Ridge. Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker’s single-minded assault on public service unions in 2010 certainly qualifies as a major political attack on the public interest.

But Michigan’s “right-to-work” scam really takes the cake. Even a superficial look shows the “underhand” behind this attack on unions – the powerful Koch brothers and their moneyed consort, the corporate-sponsored National Right to Work Foundation, and the right-wing ALEC legislative lobby, doing the dirty work on the assembly floors.

And this is occurring only a month after Obama soundly defeated Mitt Romney and the same corporate ideal – by 8 points in Michigan, led by an overwhelming 15-point majority among union households.

It is comforting to hear, just last week, that Obama opposes “right to work for less.” But we need more of this drumbeat on behalf of simple economic justice. One presidential pronouncement is not enough.

“Right to Work” is a Big Lie that sounds good until you examine it closely. There is real economic mischief hiding behind an abstract and fractured concept of “freedom.”  Here’s what Michigan Gov. Rich Snyder said: “This is all about taking care of the hard-working workers in Michigan, being pro-worker and giving them freedom to make choices.”

It is this kind of fractured logic and double-speak that politicians use when they intend to operate against the interest of the people they should be representing. And because of this easy-to-swallow fabrication a majority of Michiganders – 55 percent – say they are in favor of “right to work.” It’s about freedom, right?

No, it’s not. It’s about restricting your rights to organize – your freedom to make something better of your life.

As the Detroit Free Press stated in an editorial Dec. 9, “Snyder’s right-to-work legislation is an attempt to institutionalize Republicans’ current political advantage. Everything else is window dressing, and most of these diversionary talking points are demonstrably false.

“The argument that right-to-work status makes states more competitive or prosperous is refuted by a mountain of evidence that shows right-to-work states trailing their union-friendly counterparts in key metrics like per capita wealth, poverty rates and health insurance coverage,” the Free Press pointed out.

The United States Department of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics, Occupational Employment Statistics, May 2011 Occupational Employment and Wages Estimates[25], shows median hourly wages of all 22 Right to Work States (RTW) and all 28 Collective-Bargaining States (CBS) as follows:

Occupation Median wages in Right-to-work states Median wages in Collective-bargaining states Difference
All occupations $15.31/hour $16.89/hour -$1.58/hour (-9.4%)
Middle school teacher $49,306/year $55,863/year -$6557/year (-11.7%)
Computer support specialist $46,306/year $50,641/year -$4335/year (-8.6%)

So-called “right-to-work” laws make it illegal for employees and employers to negotiate a contract that requires all employees who benefit to pay their fair share of the costs of negotiating it. These laws are designed to undermine unions’ bargaining strength. If workers are allowed to opt out, collective bargaining doesn’t work so well.

Currently, 23 states have such laws, including Indiana, which succumbed to the same one-party ALEC rule earlier this year.

According to research from the Economic Policy Institute, right to work produces “lower wages for union and non-union workers by an average of $1,500 a year and decrease the likelihood employees will get health insurance or pensions through their jobs. By lowering compensation, they have the indirect effect of undermining consumer spending, which threatens economic growth. For every $1 million in wage cuts to workers, $850,000 less is spent in the economy, which translates into a loss of six jobs.”

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That’s the problem with the right-wing “freedom” recipe. It does not give power to the individual. You are free to what? Get along? To be truly free, you must have the right to organize. We don’t have that today, despite the best efforts of FDR to create a National Labor Relations Act in 1935. We do not have this basic freedom of association, to choose a representative in the workplace, because legislators have continually eroded those rights, palms greased with corporate largesse.

The NLRA was first sullied in 1947 by the anti-union Taft Hartley Act, which was forced through by another Republican Congress, over the veto of President Harry S Truman. The Taft-Harley Act specifically authorized states to prohibit unions from negotiating “closed shops,” where everyone paid their fair share. Many southern states rushed to outlaw “fair share,” and for years those states have suffered the consequences – lower wages, lower income, more poverty.

President Obama may never have to exercise a veto over a National Right to Work Law, which was one of the corporate planks embraced by Mitt Romney in his 2012 campaign, but he will get a chance to weigh in on the subject Monday, Dec. 11, when he visits an auto plant in Michigan.

Let’s listen to what he says. I’m hoping for a strong statement against “right to work” and for the right to organize. Perhaps even a call for national card-check legislation, where a majority can rule in the workplace before the company mounts the inevitable anti-union broadside, protected by our weak labor laws.

It’s long overdue to swing the ball the other way, to balance the playing field for workers against the powerful corporations that run their lives. That would be the mark of real freedom, the freedom to organize.

It’s Not Over Except for the Shouting

There it was – a full day without political commercials. Wasn’t it lovely? No 30-second snippets of vitriol, tightly engineered messages of hate and innuendo. Mostly lies, no matter which side of the aisle you come down on.

I approve this message even though in the past I’ve been part of the creative teams who drew up and executed these political “hits.” Find out the candidate’s vulnerability, based on public opinion surveys, then hammer, hammer, hammer. None of it’s real, except for the real impact it can have in persuading otherwise rational people that, yes, so-and-so really is a liar/cheat/incompetent fool. Or, conversely, so-and-so really is a great person, a savior of the people.

Or a real beast …

OK. That’s not real, except for the “Mao” part.

The remarkable thing this year is that there may have come a point of diminishing returns. With the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision unleashing more than a billion dollars in misleading TV ads, mostly from a gang of billionaires led by the Koch brothers, voters apparently were able to tune them out.

How else can we explain the screaming ineffectiveness of the waves of last-minute TV spots? The marketers’ mantra is if you say something enough – particularly if you use engaging images and comforting voices – then people will come to believe it, no matter how improbable. So over and over and over again we got the same messages – particularly the ones about Obama not measuring up to the job, he tried but failed, we need a change.

No doubt that was the message that tested best. We even got it from women sitting at their kitchen tables, without the Harry and Louise dialogue but still with that personable “at home” quality. “My family just can’t take another four years.”

Well, they will. And we don’t have to listen to you again for at least another two years.

There is some relief, then, that the shrill political barkers are gone. But the adverse impact of Citizens United will be with us for many years – until we can get rid of a couple of those business-oriented justices and put the issue to a new judiciary test.

It was interesting to see that Republicans this year avoided challenging California’s requirement that the political shell groups identify their donors – apparently concerned that the billionaire sponsors of the right-wing claptrap would have to drop their masks. Justice Kennedy, the swing vote in the Citizens United decision, clearly stated that unbridled political spending should not be done in secret.

While we wait for the right moment to challenge Citizens United and remove the scourge of big money from our politics, it’s worth noting that we had at least one positive effect of the ruling: It allowed unions to spend money to talk with nonmembers about candidates and issues during the campaign. Thus, while unions were unable to match the firepower of big corporate sponsors in the ad wars, they were able to take their message door-to-door.

That’s the strength the labor movement always has had in politics – people. Even though union membership is on a 40-year slide – from 35 percent of the workforce in 1970 to less than 12 percent today, and less than 7 percent in the private sector – union participation in politics remains high.

Nearly 22 percent of all voters this year identified themselves as being from union households (union members and their families), a number that has been remarkable consistent even as the number of union members has dwindled. Nearly 60 percent of those voters cast their ballots for Obama and other Democratic candidates, also consistent with previous elections.

In Ohio, Wisconsin and Nevada – three crucial swing states – union participation was higher and more pro-Obama, lending credence to claims by AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka that the labor movement was instrumental in delivering the election to the president, and key Democrats running in those states. In those states, 65 percent of union members voted for Obama, 70 percent in Ohio.

The automobile industry bailout also helped Obama in Ohio and other states in the Midwest, particularly after Mitt Romney’s people ran ads claiming that Chrysler was planning to ship Jeep production overseas, taking those jobs with them. Chrysler was so incensed by the claim that it gave its union workers Election Day off to go vote their pocketbooks.

While unions have always been able to turn out their numbers – generally voting for candidates they endorse – the difference this year, because of Citizens United, is that they could also work to turn out nonmembers. They used phone-banking and door-knocking to reach these voters, working through their community affiliate Working America, which now has 3 million members.

In the last five days of the campaign, unions and community allies knocked on 800,000 doors in Ohio alone, the AFL-CIO said, with more than 10 million door-knocks and phone calls nationwide.

Liz Shuler, secretary-treasurer of the AFL-CIO, who spent the last month of the campaign crisscrossing the swing states, credited the activists who poured their heart and soul into the campaign, reaching out to tell their stories about why we need to give President Obama another four years to finish the job. “That’s what cuts through the noise of all those negative ads,” she said.

As we recover from the bitter campaign and ponder the years ahead, don’t expect the earnest sounds of kumbaya to continue. The sense of renewed hope will get a quick reality check as we head into a lame duck session of Congress, always an adventure. There is a “fiscal cliff” on the horizon, as you may have heard.

In fact, labor is already developing plans to fight tax cuts for the wealthy and efforts to cut Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security. House Speaker John Boehner may be smiling and cooing right now, but he has designs on the shape of any “compromise” to resolve the debt issue.

So the fight between two competing visions for our nation goes on. But it will occur much more quietly for a while, which is a relief and a danger. Don’t stop paying attention.