DETROIT — In this historic stronghold of the American labor movement, the phrase “right to work” is seen by many as fighting words.
But with a new GOP-controlled state Legislature and a Republican governor in place in Lansing, a move is afoot to make Michigan the 23rd state in the nation to adopt legislation that would prohibit unions and employers from regulating collection of union dues or requiring employees to join a union if their workplace is organized.
“We’ve got growing and substantial support in the Legislature for pursuing Michigan becoming a right-to-work state, but this is a marathon, not a sprint, and it’s all about making sure we are removing all obstacles to jobs,” said state Rep. Mike Shirkey, Clarklake Republican.
“Everyone acknowledges that overcoming the 75-plus-year history of legacy unions here is not something you do overnight. But some of the polls statewide indicate the public is moving toward a direction of supporting workers having the choice,” he said. “I’m not anti-union. I call it labor freedom, where unions are as free to make their case as workers are to make their choice.”
A right-to-work bill fell short in 2008, the last time the question was put before Michigan lawmakers. But the balance of power in the state was different: Democratic Gov. Jennifer Granholm was in charge and Democrats held a stronger edge in the Legislature.
Those who support right-to-work laws say it is unfair to force those who don’t wish to join a union to do so, making them pay dues against their will in order to keep their jobs. Union proponents say it is essential to their ability to organize and negotiate on behalf of workers that the law prevent “free riders” — workers who benefit from the union’s work but don’t join or contribute dues.
Currently, 22 states have passed right-to-work legislation nationwide, including most of the Old South and the Rocky Mountain West.
Not surprisingly, Michigan Senate Democrats, who count labor as a key part of their base, oppose the move, calling it a divisive and partisan distraction for a state still struggling to get back on its feet economically.
“Michigan’s middle-class workers have been forced to endure continued attacks from our Republican leaders throughout 2011 and these so-called ‘right-to-work’ proposals are simply the latest in that misguided effort,” said state Senate Minority Leader Gretchen Whitmer of Lansing. “Instead of focusing on creating jobs, Republicans … now want to pass this bad policy that would lead to lower wages and fewer benefits for those already struggling to make ends meet.”
Right-to-work backers point to new research that finds private-sector total compensation for workers rose an average of 11.8 percent in right-to-work state in the previous decade — nine times the rate compared to what the National Right to Work Committee calls “forced unionism” states.
The Virginia-based group also cited data from the Missouri Economic Research and Information Center that found the average cost of living in states without right-to-work laws in 2010 was close to 19 percent higher than in states that had them.
Despite the presence of the powerful United Auto Workers, a recent poll by the Grand Rapids Press found that 51 percent of state residents polled said they would back a right-to-work statute, compared with 27 percent opposed. The poll sample was relatively small, surveying 300 Michigan voters.
But Roland Zullo, a research scientist at the University of Michigan’s Institute for Labor and Industrial Relations, concluded in a recent survey there was little direct link between Michigan’s economic hardship and its labor laws.
“Our economic problems in Michigan are due primarily to the woes in the auto industry, which [right-to-work statutes] would not fix. When making location decisions, businesses rate factors such as the quality of the regional workforce, the regulatory environment and tax incentives before ever considering” right-to-work laws, Mr. Zullo wrote.
A white paper published by the pro-labor Economic Policy Institute in Washington last month also argued that right-to-work laws were wrong for a state like Michigan and found no relationship between such a law and economic growth.
“Seven of the 10 highest-unemployment states are states with right-to-work laws, including Nevada and Florida, which have unemployment rates higher than Michigan’s unemployment rate of 10.5 percent, and South Carolina, which also has an unemployment rate of 10.5 percent,” noted EPI economist Gordon Lafer.
Douglas B. Roberts, a former Michigan state treasurer who now serves as director of Michigan State University’s Institute for Public Policy and Social Research, said that if the GOP-led Legislature does pass a right-to-work law, Democrats would attempt to exploit the move at the polls in November 2012.
“I do not believe the climate of opinion in Michigan has changed nearly enough not to take this on. The question here is benefit and cost, and the cost would be enormously divisive,” Mr. Roberts predicted. “This would bring the unions into a consolidated effort and really would become the single rallying cry for Democrats in the next election.”
The state’s Republican governor, Rick Snyder, has said right-to-work laws are not on his agenda, calling them divisive at a time when his state must band together to change its economic direction. But some speculate that, if such a law moved through the Legislature, Mr. Snyder might quietly pass on the chance to veto it.
Among those betting on the governor’s ultimate support is Mr. Shirkey, who said Mr. Snyder, a successful entrepreneur before taking office, has done “some unbelievably courageous and gutsy things” since his election a year ago and is not afraid of going against the grain.
“He would say, ‘It’s not on my agenda,’ but he’s not saying it can’t be on his agenda,” Mr. Shirkey said.