Oakland County Sherriff Mike Bouchard, who is running for the Republican nomination for governor, called for making Michigan a right to work State in a press release and commercial Wednesday. He pointed out that average right to work states have an 8 percent unemployment rate, compared with Michigan's rate of 13.8 percent.
Attorney General Mike Cox, who is also seeking the GOP nomination for governor, indicated support for right to work in a Tuesday Gubernatorial debate. "Fourteen right-to-work states have passed us by," in per-capita personal income, he said. "That's where our children are going." He ought to know. As he noted, his oldest daughter moved to right-to-work Tennessee.
So, now that right to work has entered the policy debate for this year's gubernatorial race, it's worth asking: What is it and what does it do?
Right to work generally refers to section 14b of the 1947 Taft-Hartley Act, which allows states to bar union shop collective bargaining agreements in which paying union dues is required for many jobs. In non-right to work states, workers can be forced to join a union or pay dues as a condition of employment. To date, 22 states have adopted right to work laws since Taft-Hartley went into effect in 1947, mostly in the South and West.
Right to work supporters argue that workers should have the freedom to associate with any organization they wish -- or not -- and that forcing workers to pay dues to unions simply to keep their jobs violates that freedom.
Right to work opponents say that employees of unionized companies benefit from the collective bargaining agreement. Therefore, if a company is unionized, all employees should be required to pay dues to avoid "free riders."
In reality, dues go not only toward representational expense, but also toward lavish compensation for union officials and political donations to causes and candidates that individual union members individually might not support.
On average, right to work states have fared better than their closed shop neighbors. People know this, and are voting with their feet. According to a recent Cato Institute study, since 1970 the population of right to work states has more than doubled, while the population of closed shop states has increased by only 25.7 percent. And Census data show that 4.7 million Americans moved from closed shop states to right to work states between April 1, 2000, and July 1, 2008.
A 2009 Census estimate has Michigan's population dwindling below 10 million for the first time since 2001. Michigan was third out of 23 states experiencing outmigration, according to the estimate. Only California and New York, both closed shop states, came out ahead of Michigan.
With almost 20 percent of Michigan's population represented by unions, any candidate who backs right to work is in for a difficult battle.
Candidates targeted by unions can take comfort in a trend emerging this year. After spending $400 million to win Democratic control of Congress and elect Barrack Obama in 2008, unions' electoral influence has waned in 2010.
Scott Brown and Blanche Lincoln were both targeted by national unions and won, despite unions spending millions to defeat them. After union-supported Bill Halter lost to Lincoln, a White House official was quoted as saying, "Organized labor just flushed $10 million of their members' money down the toilet on a pointless exercise."
Candidates can also be encouraged by several polls that point to public dissatisfaction with organized labor. A March 2009 poll conducted by Rasmussen Reports showed only 9 percent of non-union workers wanted to join unions. A February 2010 Pew Research poll revealed only 41 percent of those surveyed had a favorable view of unions, with 42 percent holding unfavorable sentiments.
Jack McHugh, senior legislative analyst at the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, wrote in an e-mail, "This shows that RTW has achieved a level of salience that makes high-profile support of it appealing to an anxious candidate looking to break from the pack in a five-way GOP primary election.… Specifically, at least one experienced Michigan politician now thinks that things have been so bad for so long that voters here will reward a candidate who loudly calls for RTW."
Unions are very powerful in Michigan, so for years right to work has faced a hostile political environment. Today, however, the state's economic troubles are glaring for all to see, so now is no time for business as usual. Rigid work rules and lavish compensation packages helped bring the Big Three to their knees. Like the Big Three, Michigan cannot carry on as before -- and Michiganders know it. If Michigan's fortunes are to revive, right to work will be a needed first step.
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