12/11/2012 01:12 pm ET Updated Feb 10, 2013

Freedom's Just Another Word

America is on the verge of losing something very important in Michigan and it isn't getting nearly enough attention, probably because it's just one more act in a long-running drama.

Governor Rick Snyder and a lame duck legislature are short-circuiting their own governing processes and rushing through legislation to cripple collective bargaining. The Workplace Equity and Fairness Act will make Michigan a "right to work" state, which means employees at unionized workplaces -- public or private -- can't be required to join and support the unions that negotiate their salaries, benefits and working conditions. Effectively, it allows employees to get all the benefits of union membership without having to pay anything. Effectively, it's a union killer.

Proponents of right to work laws invariably claim their purpose is to provide employees with additional freedom; the freedom to make their own decisions about joining a union. I've often wondered how such public spirited officials would view parallel laws that provided additional freedom to every American by preventing them from having to pay taxes to receive services and protections provided by city, state and the federal governments.

These union-busting efforts, marching now from state to state, are generally cloaked in the rubric of economic development. However, genuine non-ideological research finds that to be a crock. Right to work laws have not been the magic generators of economic expansion that proponents claim. Oh, they do lead to reduced labor costs for the employer, and lower labor costs translate into economic expansion for the business owner. But they don't do much to expand anyone else's economy. And, right to work laws don't just lower wages for employees at one particular workplace. They tend to lower wages in all surrounding workplaces because there's no competitive pressure for better pay or benefits. As a result, right to work laws reduce wages and living standards for an entire state. And with lower wage levels comes a decrease in economic activity because people don't have as much money to spend. So the real freedom that right to work laws provide for workers is the freedom to work for less.

Another part of the distress caused by this myopic march toward more right to work laws is that it signifies a profound change in our society and our values. For generations, there has been a social contract between those who worked and those for whom they worked. Management and workers could be partners in building and sustaining a profitable, productive enterprise that was good for the company, good for the employees, good for the community and good for the nation. Sadly, that social contract has been crushed by the economic pressures of a fiercely competitive global economy. Any notion of company loyalty to employees has become a quaint but unnecessary expense. Today, many states, particularly in the Midwest, are littered with the carcasses of once-thriving communities that were home to large, stable businesses, plants and facilities, and home to generations of hard-working, decently paid workers and their families.

Along with the post-World War II GI Bill that made a college education possible for millions of veterans, the institution of collective bargaining created the underpinning for a strong American middle class. Together they played leading roles in our country's ascendance to one of the greatest economic powers in the history of the planet. A college degree was seen as the pathway to a financially secure career, while America's unions and union-negotiated wages made financial security possible for millions of Americans without college degrees. Collective bargaining and strong, vibrant employee unions have been enshrined in our nation's laws since the National Labor Relations Act of 1935. They were emblematic of our fundamental belief that everyone deserved an opportunity for a secure future and a measure of financial success.

It would indeed be sad if such an important institution has now been consigned to the dusty attic of our country's past. It would be sadder still if such an institution was tossed out in the name of more freedom for employees, because such statements define hypocrisy.

The people who want to kill collective bargaining to "provide more freedom for employees" do not give a morbid damn about employees or their freedom. It's a matter of driving labor costs -- wages, benefits and job security for people -- as low as possible because more money can then be pushed to the bottom line. Admitting that wouldn't make right to work proponents any warmer people or less short-sighted about the country's economic strength. But at least they'd be honest.