Is Right-to-Work next?

Mar 9, 2011

The labor battle seizing the Midwest right now is focused on the collective bargaining rights of public sector employees. But the fight over breaking these unions may have cracked open another door: the one labeled “right-to-work.”

So, let’s recap some of the big labor news that’s unfolded in recent weeks. Thousands of protestors flooded the capitals of Ohio, Michigan, Indiana, and, of course, Wisconsin.

Also – and this didn’t make headlines — In Grand Rapids, Jared Rodriguez began moving into a new office.

“In fact, I was unpacking boxes when you called,” he said.

On his cell phone — no landline yet. That’s because Rodriguez is president of a brand new group called the West Michigan Policy Forum.

“[Right-to-work is] not the only thing that’s going to bring companies here, but it could be the single most important change that Michigan makes,” he said.

In fact, the West Michigan Policy Forum has marching orders from its supporters to turn Michigan into a right-to-work state. It’s a priority the local business community basically voted on in 2008. That’s when 600 business and civic leaders as well as community advocates came up with an agenda. Their first directive: Repeal the Michigan Business Tax. Their second: Establish a right-to-work status for the state.

“Where are companies choosing to locate and why is Michigan losing out?” Rodriguez asked. “It’s not just taxes, it’s not just our weather. There are some other reasons and one of those reasons being a hostile labor environment.”

Now in this region, the cradle of unionization, those are tough words. So what exactly is this so-called “right-to-work”?

“The labor folks would say, by the way, right-to-work, versus right-to-work for less,” said Mike Smith, a labor historian at the Walter P. Reuther Library at Wayne State University in Detroit.

So say you’re in Michigan or Illinois or Ohio and you get a job in a place that’s unionized.

“You must join that union,” said Smith. “You must pay dues …. In a right-to-work state, you do not have to join, even if a union’s in place, you do not have to pay dues.”

Unions argue that when workers don’t pay dues, they still benefit from the gains of collective bargaining, while weakening unions themselves.

Proponents argue that right-to-work laws spur job growth. And the right-to-work South certainly got a lot of big plants from foreign car companies.

But in a new paper from the Economic Policy Institute, a liberal-leaning think tank, Gordon Lafer says the evidence doesn’t back up the job growth claims. The paper’s authors also warn that it’s difficult to isolate the impact of a single policy like right-to-work from the slew of other factors that contribute to a state’s business climate, including tax policies, transportation infrastructure, the cost of real estate, and the educational level of the workforce.

Gordon Lafer adds that the next state to adopt right-to-work laws will do so in the era of globalization, when everything’s up for grabs. Most of the 22 right-to-work states passed their legislation decades ago.

“In 2011, manufacturers who are looking for lower wages are going to China or Mexico, they’re not going to South Carolina or Arizona,” he said.

That hasn’t stopped Michigan state senator John Proos, a Republican. He’s introduced a bill that would allow municipalities to create right-to-work zones. He says think of it as a pilot project.

“If in fact it is proven that it did nothing to increase our job capacity, it did nothing to increase our competitiveness, then we can answer that question once and for all and assign that one to a good idea that we tried it that didn’t work,” he said.

Michigan’s Republican governor Rick Snyder has said that he intends to work with unions. And in Indiana, Republican governor Mitch Daniels asked that a controversial right-to-work bill be set aside for further study. Some Democratic lawmakers actually fled that state to avoid voting on it.

Still, Mark Gaffney, president of Michigan’s AFL-CIO, says the right-to-work door has opened in the Midwest. To him, it’s a purely political conservative movement.

“They well understand that unions and our allies in the Democratic party are their political opponents, and the only thing standing in their way of basically one party rule that benefits the wealthy, benefits corporations, to the detriment of the middle class.”

So is right-to-work imminent in the Midwest? No. But will Jared Rodriguez install a landline so he can lobby Michigan lawmakers for its passage? The answer is a definite yes.