Wednesday, December 12, 2012

A State's Right to Work

 Once upon a time, I belonged to a union.

It was at my very first job, when I was a teenager. I don’t recall the exact penny amount of minimum wage back in those faraway days, but I know it was less than $1.70 per hour. I worked part-time at the long-defunct A&P grocery store, after school on weekdays and all day most Saturdays.

On my first day at the job, I learned that a condition of employment was membership in the Amalgamated Meat Cutters Union. Never mind that I had been hired as a cashier and thus had nothing to do with the butcher. I had to become a union member, or become unemployed. Dues were $50 per person, regardless of wages, and they had to be paid in short order after being hired. That was a hefty fee for a kid making a buck-and-change. So my mother paid the $50 out of her own checkbook to keep me in the union’s good graces. I handed the check to the manager of the meat counter and paid Mom back out of my first several paychecks. Considering that my take-home pay averaged between $25 and $30 per week, it took a few months for me to reimburse my mother’s household account.

I don't know that I ever received any benefit from paying my union dues. Although after one year on the job, I did receive a dime-an-hour raise. 

At the time, I didn’t think this system was fair. My opinion hasn’t changed in the intervening decades. I still don’t believe that coerced participation in a union is correct in a supposedly free country. It seems Michigan is now one of two dozen states that agrees with me.

The Amalgamated Meat Cutters was the only union I ever joined. I have been stalwart in my avoidance of any job that smacks of unionism throughout my working life, right up to today. It’s just a personal preference, based on that early experience that left an enduring sense of injustice on an impressionable 16-year-old. I know many people who are union employees, and most are pleased with the arrangement. That’s good for them, great. But when people want to break away from a unionized system and are demonized, harassed, and threatened because of their wish, then something has gone terribly wrong with “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” Because intertwined in all three of those unalienable rights we find our right to work.

The presidency is not a monarchy. There is a mysterious and feisty spirit afoot in our country, an underlying sense of calm resistance and subtle rebellion. After President Obama's razor-thin victory, we are watching states assert their rights in ways that have not been seen in modern times. To date, close to two dozen governors are refusing to implement state-run exchanges to facilitate Obamacare.  Now, with Michigan joining their ranks, two dozen states are insisting upon freedom from labor union control by passing their individual state's right to work legislation.

Governors have clout, and the majority of them now are Republican. A state's rights, be they in labor or in legislation, are issues that are here to stay.