This just in:  American workers have the right to work!  That’s correct, existing law mandates that no worker in the United States can be compelled to join a union, although finding a job — union or non-union — remains a bit of a challenge.

What then is the uproar over the recent passage of so-called right-to-work legislation in Michigan?  Republicans rammed through a law designed to undermine if not decimate unions at the polling booth and at the bargaining table.  To make matters worse, they passed the law in a lame-duck session of the legislature without public debate and at hyper speed, in effect, in the dead of night.  President Obama on a recent trip to Detroit termed the bill “the right to work for less” emphasizing it was a political move, not an economic necessity.

The stakes are high for California and the entire country, not just Michigan.  If the law goes unchallenged it could redefine the political balance of power nationally.

Today, if a majority of workers vote to have a union, that union negotiates for all workers in the work place.  Since everyone receives the gains — frequently better wages and benefits — union members pay dues and in 26 states non-members pay a “representation fee” or as Bob Dylan put it, “everybody must give something back for something they get.”

'Right-to-work' by the numbers

Now in Michigan and 23 other states, some workers can enjoy the gains and pay nothing.   In the short term, this arrangement appears to refute the adage that there’s no such thing as a free lunch, but in the long term shrinking resources hobble unions and all workers pay the price.

While this “right-to-a-free ride” was sold as improving the business climate and attracting new jobs, there is little evidence it does either.   What attracts jobs is a skilled work force, a strong infrastructure, and a good educational system, among many other things.  Ironically, unions have often fought hard and successfully in all these areas.  President Obama was in Detroit heralding a new $100 million investment in Detroit Diesel, a Chrysler subsidiary, when he voiced forceful criticism of the new right-to-work law.

It is true that Texas, a right-to-work state, state added 277,000 jobs year-to-year in October 2012, but California, a union-friendly state added 295,000 in the same period.  In both cases, a lot of other factors were at play.

Some employers are attracted by low union density, which is often associated with right-to-work states, but weak unions mean lower wages and fewer benefits.  The average wage in these states trails more union-friendly states by $1,500 for a full time worker, according to the Economic Policy Institute.  The flip side of lower wages, of course, is lower purchasing power.  Not surprisingly, only three of the top eleven fastest growing state economies in 2011 were right-to-work states.

The reality is that the battle in Michigan was about low-ball politics, not competitiveness.  Patrick Colbeck, a conservative Republican freshman Senator with Tea Party roots, led the charge.  Americans for Prosperity, a Koch-backed advocacy group, was a strong supporter.  It’s director, Scott Hagerstrom, called the Michigan bill, one of his top priorities.  “We fight these battles on taxes and regulation,” he said in a 2011 speech, “but really, what we would like to see is to take the unions out at the knees so they don’t have the resources to fight these battles.”

The symbolism of right-to-work in Michigan, the birthplace of the United Auto Worker’s Union and the state that paved the road to the middle class, is indeed powerful.  This  law could not only do real damage to unions in all the ways intended but will embolden other states to move in this direction as well.

What next for unions?

What are unions to do?  They are mounting an unprecedented response and could even emerge stronger as champions of causes vital to all Michigan families, union and non-union alike.

For one thing, Rick Snyder, the first term Republican governor elected as a pragmatic problem-solver, signed the bill after spending much of the last two years saying it was too divisive for Michigan.  The Detroit Free Press, which supported Snyder as a candidate and often as governor, wrote in an editorial “that trust has now been betrayed—for us, and for the hundreds of thousand of independents”.

Unions can now reach out to new allies who may have forgotten where the weekend came from, emphasizing how important the labor movement was in creating the middle class and how vital it is today on issues ranging from social security to tax policy; from Medicare to immigration.

One-third of the rise in wage inequality among males was caused by decreasing unionization between 1973 and 2007, according to sociologists Bruce Western and Jake Rosenfeld, just about the last thing we need as a society right now.

The stakes are ultimately as high in California or Maine as they are in Michigan.  Unions provide a critical voice in the political process for working families and the most vulnerable in our society.  If that voice is muffled, we lose the checks and balances essential to a Democratic society.