Rev. Al Sharpton's Weekly Blog

We Have a Right to Fight Back Against Right-to-Work Laws

Dec 12, 2012

It's hard to imagine, but there was a period in our history when workers in the United States were exploited and taken advantage of much like the way in which workers in developing nations are often unfortunately treated today. It was only after marches, sit-ins and collective organizing that American workers established unions so that they could then fight for better wages, hours, benefits, working conditions and many other labor rights that we simply take for granted now. But yesterday, in the most outlandish, brazen and unjust manner, Michigan's Republican-controlled House passed two bills effectively ending the ability of labor unions to function (the state Senate already previously passed the bills). The so-called 'Right to Work' law is nothing more than a creative way to curb the power of unions, workers and their ability to jointly bargain. Michigan is the 24th state to pass such a law, pushing those of us who care about the future of this country to say that we have a fundamental right to fight back.

One of the earliest lessons I learned as a child was to speak up wherever and whenever I saw an injustice taking place. That basic principle is one that I carried with me throughout my life and one that I encourage others to follow as well. Without a challenge to the status quo, nothing changes. In the state of Michigan, auto workers united and established their own voice when they formed the UAW (United Auto Workers) in the 1930s. And the auto industry was one of the first areas to see recovery following the economic recession of '08 thanks to the President's bailout. To now take away these workers' ability to voice their discontent and to object to unfair practices is a slap in the face. Michigan's Gov. Rick Snyder and the Republican legislatures that passed these bills are sending a clear message: their interests are with CEOs and businesses - not with workers.

"You know, these so-called right-to-work laws, they don't have to do with economics," said President Obama on Monday. "They have everything to do with politics. What they're really talking about is giving you the right to work for less money." I couldn't agree with the President more. An attack on unions isn't going to somehow spur sudden financial growth. And if a state like Michigan does see any increase in business, it's not the kind of growth the people of this nation would like to see. It will be growth in low-wage, cheap labor with fewer benefits and rights for the very people that are the backbone for these corporations. We will slowly slip closer and closer towards the harsh labor conditions we see in so many other places around the world.

Michigan has the fifth highest percentage of workers that are union members in the country. As I previously mentioned, it is the birthplace of the UAW, and is home to hundreds of manufacturing plants today. When Gov. Snyder signed this legislation, it set a dangerous symbolic and very real precedent for other states to replicate. At a time when Americans are still recovering from a struggling economy and are willing to take lower-paying jobs with less benefits, corporations are taking full advantage of the situation. Passage of these right-to-work laws only further strengthens their ability to abuse their power while continually oppressing labor. If we proceed down this slippery slope, soon corporations won't have to outsource any jobs overseas, but not for the right reasons -- they will have established environments here that are just as horrendous and unjust for workers at home. It is an abomination that we find ourselves here today.

On Nov. 6th, Americans sent a clear message that we are not interested in protecting the rich at the expense of the rest of the country. But for some reason, there are those -- like Gov. Snyder and the Republican legislature of Michigan -- that are still only concerned with corporations and the wealthy. The people of Michigan and around the country will not stand for it. Whether it's a statutory initiative, a veto referendum or an outright recall election, we must take action in Michigan and anywhere workers' rights are under threat. There has been far too much sacrifice to secure our ability to collectively bargain and create fairer working conditions for us to give up now. We have a duty and a right to fight back.

As the great Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. put it:

In our glorious fight for civil rights, we must guard against being fooled by false slogans, such as 'right to work'. It is a law to rob us of our civil rights and job rights. Its purpose is to destroy labor unions and the freedom of collective bargaining by which unions have improved wages and working conditions of everyone ... Wherever these laws have been passed, wages are lower, job opportunities are fewer and there are no civil rights. We do not intend to let them do this to us. We demand this fraud be stopped. Our weapon is our vote.

People should think twice before they invite Gov. Snyder to a King Day celebration in three weeks.