Right-to-work effect to vary by industry

By Katie Burke, Daily News Editor
Published December 15, 2012

In the state where the United Auto Workers was founded and where union membership is close to the nation's highest, union rights were scaled back Tuesday as Republican Gov. Rick Snyder signed right-to-work legislation last week.

Michigan is the 24th state to approve such legislation, which prohibits unions from forcing workers to automatically pay dues in union-represented workplaces. The decision comes after Proposals 2 and 4, which sought respectively to increase collective bargaining and in-home healthcare workers’ rights, were voted down by Michigan residents on Nov. 6.

Both Wisconsin and Indiana passed similar legislation in 2011. The Ohio state government also approved a right-to-work bill that was later repealed through a referendum.

Snyder said in a statement that right-to-work laws give the state's workforce greater freedom in their labor contracts.

“Workers deserve the right to decide for themselves whether union membership benefits them,” Snyder said. “We also must make Michigan more inviting to job providers so our families can enjoy more and better jobs.”

He added that the controversial legislation is necessary for the state’s economic recovery.

“These new laws are pro-worker and pro-Michigan,” said the statement. “Introducing freedom-to-work in Michigan will contribute to our state’s economic comeback while preserving the roles of unions and collective bargaining.”

State Representativye Jeff Irwin (D-Ann Arbor) said the legislation is politcal ploy by the lame-duck session of the Republican-controlled state House that follows the party's loss of seats to Democrats in the November election.

“This is all political,” Irwin said. “This is (Republicans’) last chance, after the last election, to pass potential policies and make it more difficult for labor unions to exist and to thrive.”

Irwin said the new legislation will lead to lower wages and fewer benefits for workers, as well as a free rider problem for due-paying union members.

“It makes it difficult for the employees’ unions to thrive because there is less incentive, since their fellow employees can enjoy all the benefits of the union … but not pay any of the cost to make that work happen,” Irwin said.

He added that the bill was introduced and passed quickly, with no hearings or opportunities for amendments, and that there's low chance of repeal as a result of included appropriations for the law.

Irwin said though the new measures may attract certain businesses, they're not the type of high-quality industries that the state’s economy should hope to be fostering.

Adjunct public health lecturer Gregory Saltzman, a professor of economics at Albion College, said the degree in which the new legislation will affect unions in the state depends on how stable the union membership remains.

“If there is a lot of turnover in the workforce … then the elimination of a union shop clause could lead to a drastic decline in union membership,” Saltzman said.

Saltzman said the Graduate Employees Organization is an example of an organization that has relatively short turnover. Unions such as the UAW will not experience such drastic declines because their memberships are more long-term and stable.

He also pointed out that Michigan’s right-to-work legislation is less extreme than those proposed in Ohio and Wisconsin, as it does not eliminate collective bargaining.

Saltzman added Snyder’s eventual support of the law will make his campaign for reelection in 2014 more difficult because he has deviated from his usual moderate stance. He had previously stated that union-limiting laws were not priorities of his administration.

“Snyder has moved to the right,” Saltzman said. “Instead of being a moderate conservative, he’s a conservative now.”

He said labor unions will rally against Snyder's opponent in the next gubernatorial election.

Saltzman said the changing national political climate decreases the chances that other states will heed Snyder’s example in drafting union laws.

“The slight ebbing of Tea Party strength makes it a little less likely that other states are going to follow Michigan,” Saltzman said.

Correction appended:: A previous version of this story misidentified the right-to-work legislation.