Investigative
10:50 am
Fri January 27, 2012

Michigan to become a 'right-to-work' state?

Some Republicans in the Michigan House want to give workers in union shops the option not to pay union dues. Unions in the state say that’s something that they’d “take to the streets” to fight. 

But not all union members agree.

Terry Bowman works at a Ford plant in Ypsilanti. He’s a member of the United Auto Workers.

He calls himself a 'union conservative.'

Right now, by law, he’s required to pay union dues. He has the option of not being part of the union, but he still has to pay what’s called an agency fee. The agency fee covers the cost of the union’s collective bargaining and grievance handling.

It’s slightly less than regular union dues because it does not include money that’s used to make direct political contributions.

He says that’s not good enough because union officials are active in politics he opposes.

Bowman points to a rally held in Washington, D.C. in the fall of 2010 called “One Nation Working Together.” He says union officials paid by his union dues spoke against the things he supports.

“They got up, blasting the Republican Party, blasting free market economics, blasting businesses and corporations, blasting, really, anything that’s not part of their agenda.”

Bowman says there are many union members who don’t want to support those kinds of activities. So, he wants to see Michigan become a ‘Right to Work’ state. He would then have the choice of whether to pay union dues or not.

“What happens in a ‘Right to Work’ state is all of a sudden union officials become accountable to the union membership where they were not before. Union officials have to start realizing that, you know, maybe we shouldn’t do this because we could lose membership, we could lose union dues.”

The unions say less money from union dues would mean not only less money for political action, but less money for safety training, and fewer resources to deal with companies that don’t treat their workers right.

There are 22 ‘Right to Work’ states, mostly Southern and Western states. Indiana (which will likely pass it), Wisconsin, and Ohio have been looking at becoming ‘Right to Work’ states, but it’s been contentious. It’s riled unions and their supporters. The backlash has sidelined most of the work on other issues in those states.

In Michigan, Governor Rick Snyder says ‘Right to Work’ legislation is not on his agenda. He says he doesn’t want to get bogged down, distracted from doing the things he wants to accomplish. And he’d rather not see the legislature take up the issue.

“ To get a very divisive debate like that, I mean, you create and environment where not much gets done. I mean, I would point to Wisconsin, I would point to Ohio. If you look at Indiana, that’s kind of consuming all the dialog in that state,” the Governor said recently at the Detroit Auto Show.

In the Michigan Senate, Majority Leader Randy Richardville also says he’s not interested in taking up the controversial proposal. But fellow-Republican House Speaker Jase Bolger, says he’s ready to talk about it.

“I believe that Right To Work is something that we need to have a discussion on and let the legislature- I reject the opinion that says we cannot discuss difficult issues. Instead, I think we need to be willing to look at any issue that will make Michigan a better place to provide a job," said Speaker Bolger at the capitol just moments after the recent State of the State address.

And supporters of ‘Right to Work’ believe it will mean just that: jobs.

Mike Shirkey is a Republican Representative from Jackson where he owns a small manufacturing business. He believes many manufacturers decided not to locate in Michigan because it’s not a ‘Right to Work’ state, that it’s too strong of a union state.

“In the last ten years, there have been eleven new auto assembly plants built in the United States. How many in Michigan? Exactly none,” Shirkey confidently declared.

LG: Well, (there's) GM’s Delta Township plant in Lansing.

“In the last ten years?” 

LG: Within the last six years.

“Okay. Alright. So, maybe one. Alright, so, I stand corrected. But still, if you think about it, where’s the best trained workforce, where are the best trained universities that put out the engineers for this, where are the corporate headquarters? And so, what was the reason for those jobs to transfer? It’s over-regulation of labor work rules that’s caused the biggest reason for companies to shy away from investing in a compulsory union environment.”

Representative Shirkey believes making Michigan a ‘Right to Work’ state would knock down a major hurdle to economic recovery.

The unions say this is just an attempt at union busting.

“Really what it is is a smoke screen. Really this legislation is meant to bankrupt the unions,” said Ray Holman, a spokesman for the United Auto Workers. He says ‘Right to Work’ would simply allow some workers to be free-riders.

“If certain people were not paying dues and got all the benefits from having a collective bargaining agreement, you know, that’s not fair.”

And Holman says it will hurt workers. He notes workers in ‘Right to Work’ states are often paid less than in non-‘Right to Work’ states such as Michigan.

There have been many studies which attempt to determine if workers and the economies in ‘Right to Work’ states are better off as supporters claim. Economists try to tease out the different states’ productivity, workers’ purchasing power, median household income and many, many other measures. At best the studies conflict. The researchers of the various studies criticize each other’s methodologies and conclusions.

 ‘Right to Work’ advocates and Right to Work’ opponents selectively pull isolated statistics from those studies and government reports to bolster their arguments, ignoring the larger contexts.

But, even the academics who conclude there is an advantage for ‘Right to Work’ states concede it’s not a panacea for economic turnaround. It’s just one minor tool in the economic toolbox.

There are many other factors that determine whether a company puts a manufacturing plant in a state, financial incentives such as tax breaks, infrastructure improvements, and worker training paid by state and local governments.

Even the business group the Michigan Chamber of Commerce is not putting ‘Right to Work’ at the top of its agenda. Wendy Block with the Chamber says there’s not a consensus yet among her group’s members.

 “You know, we’re trying to take the steps to really figure out, you know, are Right To Work states more prosperous than non-Right To Work states? What sort of impact will this really have on our economy if we become this?”

So, if business is not sure it wants it, why are some politicians and conservative groups pushing for it now?

Politics.

Since unions are some of the strongest backers of the Democratic Party, less money would weaken the Democrats.

Ray Holman with the United Auto Workers says ‘Right to Work’ would mean -in the long run- fewer politicians advocating for safe working conditions, security for workers, and better benefits.

“This is one of those lines in the sand that we’ve drawn. And, you can believe that all unions, all folks that believe in collective bargaining rights will be out in the streets. That, I can guarantee you,” Holman said.

He thinks the Republicans who want to push ‘Right to Work’ are making a strategic mistake in this election year. He thinks nothing will get out the vote for Democrats like a fight over unions.

Representative Shirkey says he’s got the facts on his side and he knows the unions think they have the facts on their side. So, he says as a state, let’s debate ‘Right to Work.’

“I snicker and laugh when somebody, including the Governor, brings up the fact that this is a ‘too divisive’ an issue. Well, frankly, any change that has a long legacy such as this one is going to be divisive and require a lot of debate.”

It’s unclear just how much support there is for ‘Right to Work’ among the Republican majorities in each legislative chamber. Although, if it were passed by the legislature and put on the Governor’s desk, it’s expected he would sign it.