What’s Really Behind Right-to-Work in Michigan?

by John Logan on December 12, 2012

On Tuesday, Michigan became the nation’s 24th state, and the most unionized state, to enact right-to-work legislation, which prohibits employers and unions from negotiating “union security agreements.” Over twelve thousand protesters who had converged on the state capital in Lansing failed to dissuade Michigan¹s Republican governor Rick Snyder from signing the anti-union legislation that will lower wages and worsen labor standards, but will do nothing to help the state¹s economy or its workers.

Throughout the legislative process, Republicans lawmakers deprived Michigan voters of the opportunity to learn about the true impact of right-to-work. They rushed right-to-work through the legislature in record time — the controversial anti-union measure went from floor introduction to passage in 90 minutes, with no hearings and no testimony.

After watching Ohio’s anti-collective bargaining legislation get tossed out by incensed voters in a referendum last year, Michigan Republicans have tried to prevent voters from overturning right-to-work. The inclusion of a $1 million appropriation to “educate” workers and implement the legislation means that it can only be replaced by new legislation. In 2011, Republicans redrew boundaries and changed of the rules on recall elections, thereby making it more difficult for Democrats to win the seats necessary to achieve this.

Governor Snyder, meanwhile, had a last minute change of heart on merits of right-to-work. For the past two years, Snyder has publicly stated that right-to-work was a divisive issue that was “not on his agenda.” Instead, he wanted to focus on what matters most to Michiganders ­ job creation. Then late last week, Snyder endorsed the bill, arguing that right-to-work would protect ³worker choice² and would help to grow the Michigan economy.

So how do Snyder’s claims on the alleged benefits of right-to-work hold up to scrutiny?

First, on “worker freedom,” Snyder appears not to understand current law.In Michigan, as in the rest of the United States, no one can be forced to join a union as a condition of employment. Under federal law neither the union nor the employer can require an employee to join the union in either the public or private sectors. Workers represented by unions always have the option of becoming agency fee payers, contributing a fee that covers only the cost of representing the employee in the bargaining unit.

Yet Snyder insists that workers themselves should have the “ultimate choice” on whether or not they join a union. Either through willful ignorance or, more likely, through deliberate misrepresentation, Snyder is professing to give employees a right that they already enjoy.

What about Snyder¹s claim that right-to-work would boost the Michigan economy? Despite the unsubstantiated claims of right-to-work supporters, lower wages and benefits and poorer labor standards ­ including higher workplace fatality rates — are the most likely results of the anti-union legislation. A recent study by University of Michigan researchers demonstrates that construction trade fatalities are significantly lower in non-right-to-work states.

According to reports released yesterday by the Economic Policy Institute and Center for American Progress, there is no evidence that the last two states to enact right-to-work, Indiana and Oklahoma, have benefitted economically from the anti-union legislation.And a study by the Congressional Research Service concludes that the evidence of the alleged economic benefits of right-to-work is, at best, inconclusive.

Business location decisions are based on local labor markets and investment incentives, not on right-to-work legislation. Nineteen right-to-work states have had their anti-union legislation for at least half a century, yet wages are 16.6% higher in non-right-to-work states. From a public policy perspective, right-to-work has been an abysmal failure. And in Michigan, right-to-work will cause unwanted uncertainty, as the legislation will almost certainly face a court challenge because it exempts only public safety employees.

So if right-to-work fails to advance “worker freedom” or promote economic development, why did Snyder really throw his weight behind it?

The real reason behind the governor¹s radical departure on right-to-work is that the American Legislative Exchange Council, Americans for Prosperity and other far-right groups funded by the billionaire Koch Brothers are championing the measure. For the past two years, these groups have been pushing anti-union measures in dozens of states across the country. And after Republican loses in Michigan in November, the lame duck session was the last chance to enact right-to-work legislation. Snyder now appears to answer more to the Koch brothers than to the voters of Michigan. Even the Detroit Free Press, which had previously endorsed him for governor, has accused Snyder of ³drinking the Koch Brothers¹ Kool-Aid.²

On a visit to a Michigan factory that is creating more union jobs, President Obama stated on Monday: “These so-called Œright-to-work’ laws, they don’t have to do with economics; they have everything to do with politics.” As Obama suggests, right-to-work legislation will not boost Michigan¹s economy or help its workers, but it will lower wages and promote a race to the bottom in labor standards. And it will damage the organizations that give a political voice to Michigan workers, instead of to the Koch Brothers, which, of course, is its true purpose.

John Logan is Professor and Director of Labor and Employment Studies at San Francisco State University.

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