Labor Voices: Right to work didn’t work

Jimmy Settles

When we at the UAW wrapped up negotiations with Ford Motor Co. in 2015, there was widespread expectation — both inside and outside the industry — that our members would leave the union in droves.

The “right to work” law had recently passed in Michigan, and the expiration of our 2011 contract with Ford gave our members the legal right to leave the union. But here we are, more than a year-and-a-half removed from ratifying our 2015 contract and our membership attrition has been less than 1 percent.

I’m sure right to work proponents expected more erosion to our union ranks. But it’s a credit to our membership that they weren’t swayed by the corrosive rhetoric spewed from those who tout the false virtues of right to work.

And it’s a credit to our international and local staff that they were able to counter the divisive right-to-work propaganda with a truth-telling communications campaign aimed at ensuring our members remained in the know.

It must be noted that the name itself — right to work — is a clever bait-and-switch advertising ploy. It doesn’t give workers the right to work. Nor does it mean those who oppose right to work are against workers having the right to work. Rather, it is an anti-union stance with a racist origin that says individuals can work in unionized facilities and have the option of deciding to join the union.

The origins of right to work can be traced back to the racially motivated premise of Vance Muse, an oil lobbyist from Texas who was also a reputed white supremacist and segregationist.

Right to work is now the law in 28 states. U.S. Rep. Steve King, a Republican from Iowa, went so far as to introduce legislation earlier this year that could make right to work a national law. Rep. King created a fuss this past March with an insensitive and perhaps even racially charged comment on social media that disparaged foreigners and immigrants.

Right to work’s origin is evidence that it was a misguided movement to begin with. It was used only as a mechanism to advance hatred and divisiveness in the name of the American worker. And today, it remains a misguided movement that claims to put the power in the hands of the American worker, but yet strips the American worker of the collective voice that gives the working class its potency.

Indeed, the UAW’s fight against right to work, in the short term, has yielded success. But we won’t rest on our laurels. As long as there have been unions in America — dating back to the 18th century — there has been opposition. Battling is nothing new to us. It’s in the DNA of organizing.

We will continue fighting. We will continue challenging the systemic pushback against organized labor. We will continue the open dialogue with our members about the wrongheadedness of Right To Work. In short, we must — and will — remain unified and stand strong against the perpetual attack on unions and middle-class America.

Jimmy Settles is a vice president of the UAW and director of the union’s National Ford Department.

Labor Voices

Labor Voices columns are written on a rotating basis by United Auto Workers President Dennis Williams, Teamsters President James Hoffa, Michigan AFL-CIO President Ron Bieber and Michigan Education Association President Steven Cook.