In Mich. Labor Setback, Politics as Usual

December 14, 2012

by E. Sebastian Arduengo

Michigan Governor Rick Snyder (R) despite a massive outcry of protestors at the state capitol in Lansing signed a so-called “right-to-work” bill into law. And just like in neighboring Indiana, right to work passed despite a massive outcry, and Michigan joined 23 other states that have passed such legislation in a seeming race to the bottom for the benefit of corporations that have made massive political donations to the Republican proponents of these bills.

So what is “right to work,” and why are so many Republican officials making it a legislative priority? Put simply, right-to-work legislation prohibits agreements that require employees of a firm to maintain union membership as a condition of employment, allowing workers who choose to do so the right to “work through a strike.” The problem with this is that federal law requires unions to bargain for a contract that benefits all workers, regardless of whether they become members of the union. And, unions are founded on the premise of collective action, when individuals can take advantage of the benefits that unions win in contracts without having to pay their fair share in dues; it creates a massive free-rider problem that undermines the purposes, and ultimately the benefits that a union provides. For that reason, the AFL-CIO calls this kind of legislation a “right to work for less [pay/benefits]” law.

Governor Snyder (pictured) claimed that the reason for urgency was competiveness. Since Indiana passed right-to-work legislation in February, Michigan-based firms have started to locate new facilities in Indiana, citing the state’s “employee - and employer - friendly environment.” And, indeed, there are 67 planned projects in the Hoosier state that are estimated to create 3,700 new jobs. However, right to work has a much more insidious side to it. According to the Economic Policy Institute, real wages in right-to-work states are 3.2% lower than they are in non-right-to-work states, and rates of employee sponsored health insurance and pensions are smaller as well. The long term economic benefits of right-to-work laws are questionable too. In Oklahoma, which passed its right-to-work bill in 2002, the number of new companies moving into the state has dropped by one-third.

Over time, right-to-work laws hurt both employees, because they are being paid less in wages and benefits, and employers, especially small businesses, because the purchasing power of unionized workers is diminished. That leaves one conceivable reason why Republican legislatures have been so adamant about pushing right to work – to cripple organized support for their political opponents. Almost all major union leaders supported President Obama’s successful reelection campaign, giving a total of $53 million in donations to Democrats, compared to just $5 million to Republicans. As The Hill puts it – “[unions] provided foot soldiers for campaigns and money when necessary to pave the way for Democrats to win public office.

While Michigan Democrats and Labor leaders may have overreached in pushing for a constitutional amendment on the November ballot to enshrine union rights, Michigan Republicans have seized on the opportunity to strike a blow at the Democrats, and for right now, they’ve succeeded.