Michigan Protests: A Defeat Led by the Unions

In Michigan workers have seen another defeat. The bourgeoisie with its mechanisms of social control, the government and the labor unions were determined not to allow another situation of mass protests breaking out as occurred in Wisconsin. Even the prospect of a workers struggle going beyond the traditional established mechanisms of power is a threat to a bourgeoisie so long confident in their power that even the slightest whiff of class struggle is a cause for great fear. Such struggles cannot always be contained, even with the largest police and military apparatus on the planet. Workers in Michigan suffered a major defeat that was in large part the doing of the unions themselves. Faced with mass protests and a willingness of workers to fight back, the unions sought to put “collective bargaining” rights up for a public referendum and predictably lost. This was the signal for the state government to turn Michigan into a “right-to-work” state. This was just one piece of legislation signed into law alongside many others with the aim furthering austerity and political repression. [1] In this illusory democracy of the referendum the unions hoped to pacify workers and get them to stop protesting and go vote.

Once again we saw huge mass of workers protesting. Whereas in Wisconsin the unions and the Democratic Party had to get in gear quickly in order to assert control of the protests, in Michigan the unions used the referendum to assert control over the protests before they began. In the case of groups like the United Auto Workers the elimination of collective bargaining rights in no way affects their stake in ownership of the Big Three auto manufacturers or the control of auto worker pensions through a “Voluntary Employee Benefit Association” fund. The ultimate end logic of unions bargaining with the employers for wages, benefits and working conditions is to become a capitalist entity in themselves. A passive mass to be bargained over and controlled is always more preferable to a mass of workers whose actions cannot always be predictably controlled.

A large part of the failure can be laid directly at the feet of the unions. The unions had a referendum, Proposal 2, placed on the electoral ballot in Michigan that would enshrine the collective bargaining process as a legal right. It also proposed that the state and localities can ban public sector workers strikes in exchange. The UAW is already operating under a no strike agreement until 2015. Proposal 2 failed and its failure was the green light that gave the Snyder administration in Michigan the go ahead to pursue the right-to-work law.

The Taft-Hartley Act of 1947 makes an actual closed shop workplace illegal. There were minor exceptions to this act left to the states regarding public employee unions collecting dues from workers covered under the union and management bargained contract but such dues money was legally restricted to only covering the costs of their representation. The basic purpose of right-to-work laws is to make the workforce more flexible to the whims of management. The union executive in Michigan was willing to throw away the legal right of public workers to strike in order to keep a seat at the collective bargaining table.

The approach taken by the unions wasn't the result of blindness or stupidity. Currently national unions are continuing to focus their resources into electoral campaigns and the creation of “minimum wage unions” and gestational “non-majority” unions. A part of the offensive the unions have taken was through organizing protests against the Wal-Mart retail chain. In Michigan there was a large population of workers willing to march down and take over a state government but the unions choose to run a get-out-the-vote campaign for the Democratic Party. Legally mandated collective bargaining sought to avoid strikes and labor unrest. By ending this process the capitalists have changed the rules to allow for themselves the greater flexibility in how to dispose of their labor units.

The practice in Michigan of “Emergency Managers” appointed by the state to take over and run financially troubled local governments had been struck down during the November vote by popular referendum. [2] In the recent spate of legislation in Michigan emergency management provisions have been reinserted into Michigan state law and will continue to allow locally elected governments to be effectively dismissed and their functions taken over by a state appointed emergency manager to enact a program of austerity and looting. Referendums might sound like the ultimate exercise in liberal democracy but in reality they achieve nothing for workers or are used as a club against them.

Further legislation has made it more difficult for abortion clinics to get licensed. Property taxes on business property and assets have been ended, thus placing a further strain on school districts and municipalities that depend upon them to function. Heavily de-industrialized communities will be hit particularly hard by this $590 million revenue cut whose ultimate cost will be borne directly by the working class. The largest insurer in the state of Michigan, Blue Cross-Blue Shield will be legally allowed to become a “non-profit” mutual insurance company rather than the state's insurer of last resort. This will amount to an increase in insurance premiums and a subsequent cut in take home pay for many workers. There is even a new “anti-sharia” law, to supposedly defend Michigan citizens from subjugation to Islamic religious law regardless of how improbable the prospect might be.

There is either the carrot or the stick, and in times of crisis the capitalist class will always resort to taking away the carrot in favor of beating workers with sticks, or in the case of the protesters in Michigan, getting sprayed with pepper spray. Revolutionaries have a potential opening to start putting forward the option of forming groups of workers in their workplaces and in their communities, particularly where unions have recently led broad popular movements of workers through similar betrayals and defeats.


[1] State of Michigan Public Act 348


[2] Yacchino, Steven. Michigan Voters Repeal Financial Law. New York Times. November 7, 2012.


Sunday, January 20, 2013