Right to Work: A View from Michigan

Written by: Michelle Kaminski

Primary Source: UnionWork

So much has been said about Right to Work (RTW), that it’s challenging to add anything new to the debate. I’m sure you all know that Right to Work states have
• Lower wages and household income
• Higher infant mortality rates
• 36 percent higher on-the-job fatality rate

Economic impact: The Oklahoma story

Before Michigan, Indiana was the most recent state to become a RTW state, in 2012. But it’s a little too soon to see the effects there. The last state before that to become RTW was Oklahoma, in 2001. Part of the motivation for Oklahoma to become a RTW state was to preserve jobs in the face of NAFTA. It didn’t work. Since becoming a RTW state, Oklahoma has lost manufacturing jobs. And the number of new facilities (manufacturing, service, and total) that open per year is lower now than it was before Oklahoma became RTW. To be fair, economic growth has slowed down everywhere since the Great Recession began in 2008. But even if you look at the period from 2001 to 2005, before the economic downturn, Oklahoma still had fewer new facilities per year as a RTW state than when it was a union security state.

Oklahomans were promised new jobs as a result of RTW, just like Michiganders were. And many people believed it. I imagine that’s what RTW proponents will promise when they introduce the bills that are now under discussion in Pennsylvania and in the U.S. House of Representatives.

Protest against RTW. Photo courtesy of Patty Farhat

Protest against RTW. Photo courtesy of Patty Farhat

George Orwell’s 1984 v. Gov. Snyder’s 2012

In Michigan and elsewhere, RTW debates are filled with Orwellian language. As Martin Luther King, Jr. said in 1961, “We must guard against being fooled by false slogans, as ‘right-to-work.’ It provides no ‘rights’ and no ‘works.’ Its purpose is to destroy labor unions and the freedom of collective bargaining.”

Here in Michigan, the website for the State of Michigan takes the doublespeak one step further, and now describes RTW as “Freedom to Work”. And – get this – Gov. Snyder claims to support unions. The State of Michigan website says, “Governor Snyder is pro-union and pro-worker, and he supports Freedom to Work ”.   But apparently the governor and the legislature don’t feel the same way about police and fire unions, because they are exempted from RTW legislation.

At the state capitol in Lansing

At the state capitol in Lansing

Let’s be clear: The sole purpose of RTW is to harm unions, and limit their ability to bring social and economic justice to workers. RTW legislation helps the 1 percent and hurts the 99 percent. That dynamic was visible in Lansing as 12,000 protestors turned out to oppose the RTW legislation, while the legislature passed the bill with no committee hearings or public comment. Legislators also used some legal maneuvering to ensure that RTW cannot be overturned by a vote of the citizens of Michigan via referendum.

As the debate about RTW raged in Michigan for that one frantic week between the time it was introduced and the time it was signed, I thought some of the economic arguments regarding RTW were reasonably well covered in the local media. The fact that RTW states have lower wages and income came through in most interviews I heard. But if you listened closely, you noticed that RTW was predicted to bring more jobs, but rarely did any reporters look at the evidence from Oklahoma. They simply accepted Governor Snyder’s assertion that more jobs were “promised” to Indiana since they became RTW. Not much evidence was cited on that score.


Speaker Bolger said he wanted to hold public hearings on RTW, but he just couldn’t because of disruption

The argument about choice

But there is a political argument that seemed to hamstring pro-union commentators. The argument is one of individual freedom and choice. RTW proponents say that Right to Work gives individual workers a choice. What could be wrong with that?

Labor needs to be prepared with a more vigorous response to this as the RTW battle moves to other stages. Here’s my response: Right to Work takes away a choice that workers, their unions, and management have agreed to previously. Union security clauses that require union membership or agency fees were not mandated by law. Instead, they were agreed to by union and management and ratified by the membership. In other words, workers, unions, and management actively chose union security. They voted for it every time a contract was ratified. If they didn’t want it, they could get rid of it. Now, their choice has been taken away. So, Right to Work legislation decreases their freedom of choice.

Heir to the Amway fortune, DeVos provided considerable funding for the RTW effort

Heir to the Amway fortune, DeVos provided considerable funding for the RTW effort

In one sense, this is a battle between collective rights and individual rights. Union security is a collective choice. It is a choice that says, “We, the workers, are all in this together.” RTW is an individual choice. It’s the working class version of the Gordon Gekko mantra, “Greed is good.”

While RTW is a legal issue, it is a cultural issue as well. In global studies of national culture, the U.S. rates higher on individualism than any other country in the world. Yet, I’ve always believed that there is a countercurrent of collectivism in the U.S. that many people value. People think that their families, their religious groups, and their communities should all stand together and support each other. They think the whole country should support a community that faces a natural disaster or other emergency. And people on both the left and the right believe that we should all support our country. These are all collective values. These are all cases in which we say we should stand together. Why then, is it so difficult for our national discussion to embrace any collective values in the workplace? (Or, dare I say it, democracy in the workplace?)

Going forward

Michigan becomes a Right to Work state on March 28, 2013. Legal challenges have been filed, and political challenges will likely continue for some time. Meanwhile, unions are developing strategies for responding to the new legal environment. In the short term, bargaining strategies, court cases, and political action are at the forefront of the agenda. In the long run, member mobilization and education are essential to the success of the labor movement in Michigan. Members need to see how essential their own active participation is to maintaining the gains that working people and their unions realized over the decades. Members and free-riders alike need to decode the doublespeak and understand that RTW is an attempt to decrease their wages, their benefits, and their job security. And the only way they can stop that is by standing together.

– Michelle Kaminski, Ph.D.

The MSU Labor Education Program provides training for unions on this topic. Contact me at mkaminsk@msu.edu for information about training.