They say Michigan’s new Right to Work (RTW) law is now a done deal. That didn’t stop thousands of teachers and other union members from taking the day off to protest at the state capital this week. In Detroit, so many teachers called in sick that two school districts, (Taylor Public Schools and Warren Consolidated Schools), were closed for the day, according to Detroit News. Detroit Public Schools (DPS) remained open, though Detroit Federation of Teachers (DFT) President Keith Johnson did urge members to go to Lansing.
The state’s new RTW bills would make it illegal to require employees to join a union or pay union dues as a condition of employment. This would significantly reduce unions’ ability to raise funds to support their members, while allowing freeloaders to reap the benefits of union-negotiated contracts without providing any material support for this service. RTW states have lower wages and lower union membership than other states.
Pundits and many union activists are accepting the new RTW laws as a fait accompli. However, the fact that two unions were able to easily shut down their districts with wild cat sick outs demonstrates the power teachers and other workers actually have to force a reversal of the laws. While it may be illegal for teachers to strike in this situation, the law cannot stop teachers from exercising their rights to take days off for medical or personal necessities. Such actions can be organized informally and done on a rotating basis (i.e., rolling sick outs) to minimize the loss of individual sick days, while maximizing the impact.
On the other hand, workers need to get over their fear of breaking the law. Civil disobedience has a long and important history in this country, especially in the labor movement. Strikes and unions have both been illegal in the past, but workers still formed unions and continued to engage in job actions, often getting arrested and beaten in the process, and occasionally getting killed or deported. Breaking unjust laws (e.g., any restriction on the right to strike) in the name of improving personal and collective liberties, as well as working and living conditions, is both necessary and just.