Speedy approval of a right-to-work law in Michigan brings back memories of heated debates and protests over the same issue in Louisiana 36 years ago. In 1976, union violence at the Jupiter Chemical Co. site here that left one worker dead provided a spark that reignited a move to curb union dominance.
Michigan, the 24th right-to-work state, is considered the heart of this country’s union movement. However, organized labor there may have been its own worst enemy. Unions tried to enact Proposal 2, which would have made right-to-work laws unconstitutional. The proposition was defeated last month by a 58 percent-to-42 percent margin.
“I don’t believe we would be standing here in this time frame if it hadn’t been for Proposal 2,” said Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder, who signed the country’s newest right-towork law.
Indiana was the first Rust Belt state to approve right-to-work legislation earlier this year. The term means workers aren’t required to join a union, or be forced to pay the equivalent of union dues. States where both one or the other are required are called “closed shops.” Rust Belt refers to the heavily industrialized Midwestern and Northeastern areas of the country where factories have been closed.
The South, or the Sun Belt, has benefited from right-to-work laws, which are favored by industries and businesses. Automobile plants, for example, have relocated or opened new assembly lines in those states. Now, other parts of the country want to enjoy the same advantages.
Right to work didn’t come easily in Louisiana. Organized labor marshaled all of its forces to try and derail the movement. However, continuing news reports about major industries bypassing the state because of union problems turned the tide.
A spokesman for Continental Oil Co., which had facilities here, told then-Gov. Edwin W. Edwards there was a reluctance among other manufacturers to locate in the state because of its labor image.
Unions succeeded at first when labor committees in both the state House and Senate rejected right to work. However, later votes forced the committees to report the legislation to the full House and Senate floors for debate.
The first major union protest came on the day when the House was scheduled to try and override a committee that had rejected right-to-work legislation by a 7-6 vote. Supporters and opponents packed the House chamber and caused considerable confusion and noise, but the committee was forced to report the bill to the floor.
Security was tight the day the final House vote on the bill was scheduled. Groups representing both sides of the issue got to the chamber at 8 a.m., even though the bill wasn’t scheduled to be debated until 4 p.m. Debate lasted over four hours that afternoon before the House approved right to work 59-46.
The local House delegation split down the middle. Voting for right to work were Reps. Claude “Buddy” Leach of Leesville, Conway LeBleu of Cameron, James Martin of Welsh and Eldridge Morris of DeRidder. Against were Reps. James David Cain of Dry Creek, Mike Hogan and Harry Hollins, both of Lake Charles, and M.J. LaBorde of Sulphur.
The American Press reported the vote was unique because it was one of those rare occasions when all 105 members of the House were in their seats for the final vote.
Sen. Jesse Knowles of Lake Charles got the state Senate to vote 23-13 to force its labor committee to report the House-passed right-to-work bill to the Senate floor. The upper chamber then voted 25-14 to approve right to work. The measure had the support of all area senators at the time — Knowles and Sens. William “Bill” McLeod of Lake Charles, Bryan Poston of Hornbeck and John Saunders of Mamou.
Edwards said he would sign the bill if it reached his desk, and he did. His approval came as a surprise to many in organized labor who considered him one of their most loyal supporters. However, Edwards knew the state’s industrial future was at stake.
The governor did ask lawmakers not to approve a companion measure that would have put right to work in the state constitution, and they agreed. Edwards appealed for time to see how the new law might work.
Unions today are still unhappy with right-to-work laws, and they promise they will wage tough fights to hold the line elsewhere. They also plan to actively oppose Republican governors who support the idea. Gubernatorial races are coming up in Florida, Michigan, Nevada, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. The first three are right-to-work states.
“Passing these (right-to-work) bills is an act of war on Michigan’s middle class, and I hope the governor and the Republican legislators are ready for the fight that is about to ensue,” the Michigan Senate Democratic leader told The Associated Press.
If history is a dependable guide, the odds of undoing right-to-work laws are slim. Organized labor had a big impact on the re-election of President Obama, but its declining membership has otherwise hampered its effectiveness.
Union leaders won’t agree, but right to work has improved the industrial and business climate in Louisiana. And considering the makeup of the state Legislature, nothing is going to change anytime soon. Right to work is here to stay.
Jim Beam, the retired editor of the Lake Charles American Press, has covered people and politics for more than five decades. Contact him at 337-494-4025 or [email protected].