Michigan is the automotive state. Or at least it has been pretty much since cars were invented and Henry Ford set up his assembly line, forever revolutionizing the industry. But in recent years, the automotive industry in Michigan hasn’t been doing so well. I’m sure you all recall the multi-million dollar General Motors bailout in 2008.
In a state where the automotive industry has reigned supreme for decades, the auto workers’ union has been extremely powerful and influential. And because Michigan has depended on the automotive industry for so long, it’s no surprise that making Michigan a right-to-work state — which would make it illegal to force people to join unions — was never really a consideration.
But during his campaign for the Republican nomination for governor, in an effort to stir things up, Oakland County Sherriff Mike Bouchard suggested that making Michigan a right-to-work state might help create jobs. Shortly thereafter, Dr. Hari Singh of Grand Valley State University released a study that concluded that if Michigan would have 60,000 more jobs if it had become a right-to-work state in the 1960s, according to a Sept. 5 article in the Grand Rapids Press. But neither gubernatorial candidate — Republican Rick Snyder of Ann Arbor and Lansing Mayor Virg Bernero — has said they’ll push for a right-to-work policy. Bernero, a Democrat supported strongly by labor unions, obviously wouldn’t call for a policy change that would hurt his backers. Snyder, meanwhile, has said that the issue is too “divisive,” according to a Sept. 10 column in the Detroit News by Daniel Howes.
But perhaps Synder, who currently has a strong lead in the polls, should make right-to-work a priority if he becomes governor. First, if you believe Singh’s report, it could help create jobs. Second, forcing union membership limits a worker’s professional autonomy.
As a future teacher, I’m going to have to deal with the union issue. Because Michigan teachers are required to join the union, I will have to join the Michigan Education Association if I end up getting a job in Michigan. But I don’t really want to. I have concerns with today’s unions. Though I don’t think that the teachers’ union is inherently corrupt or fights for unfair benefits, I have some objections to forcing union membership.
I’m skeptical about the usefulness of today’s unions. During the Industrial Revolution in the United States, when employees at steel mills were working 14-hour days for petty wages in unsafe conditions, unions were necessary to force employers to give workers their due. But today, when workers are protected by federal and state laws and have fair wages and hours, unions often simply force employers into over-paying them and giving more benefits than companies can afford to sustain.
One prime example of this is Michigan’s automotive industry in recent years. The way I see it, part of the auto industry’s financial struggles was that once profits started declining, businesses couldn’t afford to keep paying auto workers so much. But companies were prohibited by contract from altering pay and benefits. So they overspent. Only once the companies were in danger of failing completely did they have the leverage to force the auto workers’ union back into line. This obviously wasn’t the only cause of the Big Three’s troubles, but it was a large contributing factor.
Everyone has the right to choose how to interact and negotiate with their employer. The concept of forcing union membership is bizarre. Forcing union membership is like saying, “Join our group to protect your rights! Or else.” But it may be more profitable for some professionals to strike out on their own and hire personal representation when hammering out a contract. There can also often be a perception of enmity between unions and management that people may want to avoid. Either way, employees should be able to determine which course of action is best for them.
Though unions depend on numbers for strength, there’s no harm in allowing individuals to face off with management on their own. A few free agents aren’t going to change the demands of the union, which will still remain powerful enough to ensure that members are getting fair pay and benefits. We aren’t suddenly going to revert to 14-hour days if the union is a bit smaller. Balance is important in business interactions. Forcing membership makes unions too powerful and tips this balance out of alignment.
The automotive industry is still huge in Michigan. The unions are still powerful. But workers deserve options. And state policy should give them those options.
Rachel Van Gilder is the Daily’s editorial page editor. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.