12/17/2012 12:41 pm ET Updated Feb 16, 2013

Right-to-Work Laws are Killing the American Dream

The campaign to make Michigan a so-called "right to work" state is not really about individuals paying union dues. It's all about the 1 percent limiting the ability of working people to work together for a real voice on the job and better wages and conditions.
These misleadingly-named "right to work" laws -- orchestrated by the Koch Brothers and Amway heir Dick DeVos in Michigan and moneyed extremists in other states -- are really intended to strengthen the top tenth of the 1 percent, the very wealthiest in our country, who don't want working people to have any voice in their workplaces.
For the 99 percent, that means a continuation of wage stagnation, and health care and retirement cuts. It means an end to the American dream for the overwhelming majority. And that means no economic recovery, since consumer spending drives roughly 70 percent of our economic activity. Cuts in living standards cut economic demand.
Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder says "right to work" is about economic freedom for workers, and he is not really cutting collective bargaining.
Many democracies presuppose collective bargaining coverage, as well as sector bargaining.  In those cases, individuals in fact decide whether or not to pay union dues, and collective bargaining is by industrial sector and stronger than ever. This approach works in nations as diverse as Germany, Brazil, France and Argentina.
Sector bargaining means workers don't have to belong to a union, but bargaining rights remain in place across the entire industry or sector. Under this model, all manufacturing sector employees, for example, would bargain together to improve their conditions, improve their wages and economic standing and improve their standard of living. Let's give 80 to 90 percent of working people bargaining rights. Finance workers in Sao Paulo now have higher wages than their counterparts in New York City who work at the very same banks. Surprised? That's what real bargaining rights can produce.
Under the current U.S. system, the majority of workers has no power, no rights, and can only look forward to a declining standard of living.
The so-called "right to work" campaign is about making working people weaker. It's not explained very well when it is presented as a battle over individual rights, and little attention is paid to bargaining outcomes and standards of living.
"Right to work" cripples workers' power and ability to bargain. In the United States, about 12 percent of all workers have collective bargaining coverage. The remaining 88 percent of workers have almost no chance of getting bargaining rights in this country because every campaign for a union voice is met with employer harassment, intimidation, and hostility.
Passenger service agents at American Airlines have been forced to wait a year just to vote in their union election. They had to fight American Airlines' endless and groundless legal appeals, all the way up to the U.S. Supreme Court. Their democratic right to vote was delayed, as American Airlines attempted to rewrite and misinterpret this country's labor laws. This isn't what democracy looks like, but it's what working people endure to even get to an election.
In the United States, these workers aren't the exception. There are effectively virtually no organizing rights for workers in America unless they are in workplaces organized decades ago. We're among the lowest ranked democracy in the world in terms of collective bargaining coverage.
We need new ideas and new actions to turn this around. We will stay focused on bargaining and organizing rights just as the 1 percent is out to destroy those rights. Setbacks like Michigan must lead to a broader movement for economic justice and democracy. We are building that movement now.