December 10, 2012

Associated Press

If anyone had doubts that President Obama would speak out against Michigan’s new “right to work” initiative, he set them to rest during an event in that state today. Here’s what he said:

“What we shouldn’t be doing is trying to take away your rights to bargain for better wages. These so-called right to work laws — they don’t have anything to do with economics. They have everything to do with politics. What they’re really talking about is, giving you the right to work for less money. You only have to look to Michigan, where workers were instrumental in reviving the auto industry, to see how unions have helped build not just a stronger middle class but a stronger America. [...]

“We don’t want a race to the bottom. We want a race to the top. America’s not going to compete based on low skills, low wage, no workers rights. That’s not our competitive advantage. There’s always going to be some other country that can treat its workers even worse.”

Obama hit all the right notes. He pointed out that “right to work” laws are not about boosting the economy, but about crippling the political opposition; that they are not about freedom, but about weakening workers’ ability to organize for better pay; that unions have long played a critical role in providing a path to the middle class; and that investing in a trained, well represented work force is the way to produce a broadly shared prosperity — rather than a “race to the bottom” — that is better for the country as a whole.

It’s unclear how much of an impact this will have on the ongoing battle in Michigan. There were already signs that Governor Rick Snyder didn’t fully understand how unions work and what the “right to work” laws speeding towards his desk actually do. In a private meeting today, top Michigan Democrats reiterated to him that labor and Dems simply want to ensure that unions have the right to collect fees from non-union members who benefit from their collective bargaining along with union members. And word is that Governor Snyder prides himself on being a pragmatic problem solving type, rather than an ideologue. So it can’t hurt to have the President come into his state and tell the truth about these laws in such a high profile way, arguing that “right to work” isn’t really about budgeting and won’t help us innovate, compete, or move the country forward.

So: Good for Obama for saying what needed to be said. We’ll see if it makes a difference.

Greg Sargent writes The Plum Line blog, a reported opinion blog with a liberal slant -- what you might call “opinionated reporting” from the left.