Like a bolt from the blue, the Michigan Legislature in its current lame duck session recently passed legislation making the Wolverine State the 24th Right to work state. Michigan, the birthplace of the United Auto Workers, has now joined Indiana as the first states in the Rust Belt to embrace Right To Work. Both passed their laws this year. The other 22 members of the club are in the South and Mountain West, so the spread of Right To Work to the heart of the Upper Midwest is huge news indeed on the labor front.
Media stories about the vote were rife with information that simply was not true. The passage of Michigan’s Right To Work law does not outlaw either unions or collective bargaining agreements. It simply prohibits the forced payment of dues by an employee to a union as a condition of employment where he or she works. Years ago, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that it was illegal to force a worker to join a union in order to have a job, as was the practice in many states for years. The court did not bar the forced payment of dues. The Right To Work laws established that prohibition. That is all they do.
I have managed business organizations funded by member dues for decades. I can only imagine the outrage if laws were on the books to require businesses to belong to the chamber of commerce. It is easy to make a good argument about why businesses should belong to them. It is a very different matter to argue that all businesses must belong to them because if they do not, they are getting the benefits that others are paying to receive without paying themselves. It is the difference between choice and coercion. Consider further what would happen if all businesses were forced to pay dues to a business association. That would make life easy for the managers of the association. Money would come through the door even if they did not provide quality services for their members and even if they went against those members’ interests. That is exactly what is happening within many unions today. If they are truly serving the best interests of the members, then their ranks and dues income will not shrink. If they are not, they do not deserve to get the money.
The passage of Indiana’s Right to work law last February may well be the dam break that will cascade far beyond Michigan. Employers—particularly manufacturers—do not mind paying good salaries and benefits to skilled workers. What upsets them are the nefarious and counterproductive union work rules in collective bargaining agreements that stifle productivity. An excellent example is the recent closure of Hostess Brands’ bakery operations due to such restrictions as being forced to have two different trucks and two different drivers haul different products to the same store. That rarely happens in Right To Work states.
After Indiana and Michigan what’s next? It will be very difficult for heavy industry states such as Ohio and Pennsylvania not to join the parade. Indiana is already recruiting industry away from them. Missouri, a state with a strong GOP presence in its legislature, is also a good possibility. Wisconsin is going to be hard-pressed not to consider passing such a law. As more states move toward passing Right To Work the pressure will build exponentially on others. If it can happen in a strong union state like Michigan, it can eventually happen even in heavily Democratic states like Illinois.
It would be wrong to force businesses to pay dues to a business organization for representation they do not choose to pay for. It is equally wrong to place the same burden on workers.