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Columns
Weekly Update
John Lindstrom
Gongwer News Service

Right to Work
Right for Michigan?

February 3, 2012

Hold on a moment, wasn’t all the attention in Indiana this week supposed to be focused on some kind of a football game? What’s all this Right to Work stuff?

Consider this a reminder of your right to work at reading columns filled with pseudo-wisdom and specious insight. Consider it also a reminder of the importance of remembering the obvious.

And the most obvious thing to keep in mind is that the action by Indiana to enact a Right to Work law — the title of which forces the question of who really does not have a right to work — will put enormous pressure on politics in Michigan. Enormous pressure.

Governor Rick Snyder has already hedged slightly his persistent comment that he does not want to be involved in a Right to Work fight. He has hedged it by saying he does not want to be involved in such a fight this year, and that it may be appropriate to look at the issue in future years.

Supporters of a RTW bill in Michigan are aggressively trying to raise money for an intense pitch to the legislature to support a RTW proposal, and urging their followers to impress their support on lawmakers.

Labor had already made it clear that opposing a RTW law was a primary agenda item for it in 2012. While union officials have not yet said what additional steps they will take in light of Indiana’s action, one has to expect the fight will intensify dramatically. Opponents of RTW have already taken to the social media electron zones to urge a greater effort to fight RTW.

Business groups largely took a pass on supporting RTW in 2012. They argued this was to give them time to study the issue more fully. One suspects their study will speed up with the potential for action sooner rather than later.

Legislative supporters of RTW have been relatively coy in outlining what their plans are. Probably the most publicly recognized supporter of RTW, Rep. Mike Shirkey (R-Clark Lake), said he hopes to have a bill ready before the legislative spring recess. Frankly, that seems a long time to get a bill, but as was said, things are being played a bit coyly.

Some observations:

It’s unclear why anyone thought there was ever a chance RTW would not pass in Indiana. Governor Mitch Daniels wanted it, so he got it. Mr. Daniels is rarely denied, and in the end passing RTW was not all that tough in the Hoosier state. What was tough in Indiana was getting the state to accept daylight savings time, and Mr. Daniels did that. No, no, the only issue regarding passage of RTW in Indiana was when it would occur.

It’s not just Michigan that will feel the pressure to enact a RTW proposal. The entire Midwest will now have to confront the issue. Before Indiana acted in the immediate Midwest (before one moved into the plains), just Iowa had a right to work law. Pressure is already building publicly in Ohio and Minnesota to enact a RTW law.

As was pointed out above: who doesn’t have a right to work? Okay, what legal adult not incarcerated doesn’t have a right to work? This question deals mostly with the political necessity of plowing our poor brains with politically acceptable semantic silliness. So instead of pro- or anti-abortion rights, we say pro-choice or pro-life. The issue in RTW is union or no union, not whether one has a right to work.

RTW supporters amongst themselves rarely talk of the worker not permitted to express his or her individual feeling about joining a union, but will discuss overall cost issues vis a vis unions or no unions.

Arguing the question of cost, it’s clear many states that prohibit closed shops (closed shops being those that require union membership as a condition of employment) do have a cost advantage over states that permit closed shops. But looking at it from a global perspective, well, the U.S. loses compared to many other nations in terms of cost. So, does RTW help build overall competitiveness? Since everyone is eager to say we live in a global economy, the answer is unknown.

Just looking at the differences between RTW and anti-RTW states in terms of unemployment, it’s also hard to say what overall effect it has on employment and development. The state with the lowest unemployment rate in December, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, was North Dakota, which is a RTW state. The state with the highest unemployment rate is Nevada, which is also a RTW state.

Now, the top three states in terms of unemployment are all RTW states, but most states, both RTW and non-RTW, had December unemployment rates less than the nation’s 8.5 percent. And there were 10 states with December unemployment rates worse than Michigan’s 9.3 percent rate, and six were RTW states. So does RTW help employment prospects? Again, unknown.

What about income? There the non-RTW states blow the RTW states out of the water. At least they do when looking at median household incomes.

In 2009 the median U.S. household income was $50,221. A total of 20 states bested that (Michigan did not, sadly), and of those just four were RTW states: Virginia, Utah, Nevada and Wyoming. In calculating household income the states that seemed to do best had either high levels of high-tech industries (such as Massachusetts, California, Washington), government employment (Maryland, Delaware and Virginia), financial industries (New York, New Jersey and Connecticut) or energy resources (Alaska and Wyoming).

Also, states with healthy overall industrial mixes, such as Illinois, Minnesota and New York, were represented. States with predominant heavy industries (such as Michigan and Ohio), a heavy reliance on agriculture or low-tech industries tended to have lower household incomes. So it seems the types of industries a worker is employed in, rather than the rules governing unionization, plays a greater role in wealth development, which affects economic development.

Is not the question of whether RTW is right for Michigan, or any state, more a question of control over a company? Is it not more a question of who has ultimate authority over corporate actions and decisions? Ironically, could not one argue the government should set nothing at all in terms of statutes allowing or disallowing closed shops? That owners and workers should be left to themselves to decide the issue?

Oh, let’s not get lost in economic metaphysics. Let us focus on the immediate politics of the situation.

And the most interesting political aspect to factor now is Mr. Snyder saying 2012 may not be the year for the issue.

Here’s the question: could 2012 be the only year it would get serious consideration, at least for the immediate future?

Consider, Republicans have comfortable control over the legislature now. On this day, it is very uncertain how the November election will go, nationally and in the state. Despite the GOP having overwhelming control of the Michigan House, Democrats feel they have an honest shot at retaking control of the chamber. Why? Well, if the economy continues to improve it will help President Barack Obama (don’t forget national unemployment was around 7.4 percent — hardly robust — in 1984 when President Ronald Reagan won his morning in America landslide), and issues such as RTW will fire up labor and Democrats in ways Republicans could shudder at.

Remember that in Ohio in November the voters soundly trashed what Governor John Kasich had favored and which was seen as stridently anti-labor.

Remember as well that union membership actually increased in 2011 nationwide. Unions still are not the most popular kids on the block, but by and large people still feel decisions on union representation have to be worked out between companies and their workers.

Those considerations may make Michigan Republicans pause before pushing RTW more intently before the election. If they hold onto the House (remember, the Senate is not up for election), it may give them partisan cover to push the issue in 2013.

But what if they approve a bill before the election, what then would Mr. Snyder do? Given his history, one would have to say he probably would sign the bill. Mr. Snyder thus far has acted to give the legislature wide concurrence to its actions. Also, he has never quite said he opposes RTW, just that he doesn’t think it should be pursued.

So, even if Democrats pull off a stunner and win control of the House starting in 2013 — and the legislature has enacted an RTW bill — the newly Democratic House could not overturn the law on its own.

Say the legislature does not enact RTW before the election and Democrats do win House control. Then watch for something to happen during the lame-duck session.

Or take the legislature out of the equation: would there be an attempt to take the issue directly to the voters? And if so, what whole new set of political dynamics would that create?

With all these facts and factors to consider, with all the strategies and tactics to ponder, it should provide one with plenty of fun for this weekend. Surely, you have nothing to do on Sunday, February 5, so hold a party that evening to talk it all over. Won’t be anything worth watching on TV.

John Lindstrom is publisher of Gongwer News Service. For more than 50 years in Michigan, Gongwer News Service has provided independent, comprehensive, accurate and timely coverage of issues in and around Michigan’s government and political systems. For subscription information, including a free trial, visit Gongwer online.

February 2, 2012 · Filed under Weekly Update Tags: , ,

9 responses so far ↓

  • 1 sandra kahn // Feb 3, 2012 at 9:27 am

    Congratulations on a well considered and balanced review of this issue.

  • 2 Kalmin Smith // Feb 3, 2012 at 10:23 am

    Right to Work is a civil rights issues. No American should be forced to join a union and forced to give a portion of his wages to that union as a condition of employment. Union membership should be voluntary.

  • 3 Shree Beardslee // Feb 3, 2012 at 11:14 am

    Kalmin,
    Nobody is forcing you to take a job with a company that has a union. Find a different job. If the people that are employed at that work place are unhappy with their union, it is their responsibility to do something about it, not outsiders.

  • 4 larold // Feb 3, 2012 at 12:00 pm

    I have read about Indiana’s bill but cannot tell what changed. Un right to work, a person in a union employer can reject the union? And reject paying union dues? Can the employer also established a lower pay scale for those people than the one bargained by the union for its members? There is no mention of any of this in the news stories. If it is only about giving people and option to pay union dues (and be represented), I can’t imagine the effect is that great. Until the employer screws that person and they have to hire their own lawyer, that is. Anyone got a clue?

  • 5 Dave Lambert // Feb 3, 2012 at 12:51 pm

    If RTW is passed in Michigan, it would seem to prohibit private business from making their own human resource decisions. If I owned a business, maybe I would prefer to deal with a union rather than lots of individuals?

  • 6 James Brazier // Feb 3, 2012 at 5:59 pm

    Right to Work (RTW) is a misnomer, It is a gimmicky choice of words. Under the National Labor Relations Act and state private and public labor relations acts that follow the NLRA model, states were granted the authority to prohibit union security clauses in the Labor Management Relations Act that amended the NLRA, known as Taft-Hartly Act of 1947, that amended the 1935 Wagner Act, NLRA.

    The effect of such a prohibition is to require unions to find ways of requiring employees to join the union and not run afoul of compulsory union membership. The usual union security clause in a RTW state is called the maintenance of membership clause under which an employee who joins the union is required to remain a member unless he or she revokes such membership during a specified time period, usually around the time of a new union contract.

    The impact upon an employee is the right to directly affect union proceedings such as election of officers, selection of the bargaining committee and related union matters. An employee who refuses to join forfeits this right. But the union contract must cover all employees equally with no doscrimination against non-union members. This principle is derived from the legal certififcation of a union as exclusive representative of all employeess within the bargaining unit.

    In the process of contract administration, a union has the duty of fair represenation due to being the exlcusive representative. For grievances, this means that the union must representa every employee and not discriminate against those who do not join the union.

    So, a RTW law raises costs for unions in recuriting members and reduces union revenues by permitting employees covered by the union contract the right not to join the union. It is expected that RTW laws weaken unions by forcing them to devote more resources to recruiting and maintaining employees as union members. Research findings show that the employees who join the unions are far more likely to be making a career out of their job in the bargaining unit than those who don’t join. The non-joiners are usually the employees that don’t plan to stick around for very long.

    Maxine Berman penned a column about RTW that compared it to being covered by an insurance policy without paying the premiums. It could also be compared to being exempted from paying taxes while enjoying the same public goods and services as others who do pay taxes.

  • 7 harvey bronstein // Feb 4, 2012 at 10:36 pm

    I agree completely with Lindtrom. RTW will not add a single job. Today’s union (i.e. the UAW) understands that bloated payrolls/benefits and featherbed0ing are a thing of the past. I hope that the City of Detroit unions get the same message. RTW will simply get more Democrats elected. Watch Wisconsin, Indiana and Ohio this Fall.

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