The Rust Belt’s Labor Reform Wave
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Lagging job growth, rising taxes and coercive union tactics created an appetite for labor reform throughout the rust belt states.

Transforming Labor, the latest policy report from the Commonwealth Foundation, ranks states on their progress toward reforms that can produce budget savings, shield taxpayers from overspending, and guarantee greater protections of individual workers’ freedom of association.

The report also recounts recent reforms. Nowhere did labor reform make a bigger impact than Wisconsin.

Wisconsin’s Act 10 of 2011 made sweeping changes by limiting collective bargaining for public sector workers to base wages and requiring employees to contribute more toward their health and pension benefits. According to the MacIver Institute, state retirement savings alone amounted to $3.36 billion from 2011 to 2016, and Milwaukee Public Schools alone saved $1.3 billion in long-term pension liabilities. That’s a big win for taxpayers.

In 2012, Michigan, the historical home of unionization, passed a right-to-work law.

The Michigan Education Association (MEA) quickly moved to enforce its “maintenance of membership” or opt-out clause for public school teachers who wanted to leave the union: The teachers could do so only in August. Many teachers were unaware of the obscure union resignation window and missed the opening. With the help of the Mackinac Center Legal Foundation, frustrated educators filed an unfair labor practice charge asserting that the MEA’s opt-out window violated the state’s right-to-work protections against forced union association.

In September 2015, the Michigan Employment Relations Commission ruled in favor of the teachers (a decision later upheld by the Michigan Court of Appeals), forcing the MEA to change its rules and bylaws. Michigan teachers may now leave the union whenever they please, a major victory for educator freedom across the state.

This week the Detroit Free Press wrote:

Workers must be willing — even in the face of intimidation and fear — to withdraw their union membership and stop funding their union’s political prejudices. It is the only tool they have to protect themselves from the political bias of the people who claim to have their best interest at heart.

The same discontent is now creating momentum for labor reform in Pennsylvania, where the Commonwealth Foundation focuses our work. This session, Governor Tom Wolf signed contract transparency legislation, Pennsylvania finally outlawed stalking and harassment during labor disputes and paycheck protection cleared the state Senate.

Of course, Pennsylvania still has a long way to go. Transforming Labor gives Pennsylvania’s public sector labor laws a D. In comparison, Wisconsin earned an A and Michigan a B.

Labor reform isn’t just critical for economic resurgence; it has election consequences, too.

Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania all turned out to be a critical factor in the presidential election. Politico notes organized labor’s historically low support for the Democrat nominee, and the Fairness Center’s Right on Labor blog documents the historic shift in voting patterns.

However, the gap between union leaders and their members shouldn’t come as a surprise. Pennsylvania union households overwhelmingly favor reforms, like paycheck protection, that their leaders vehemently oppose.

The wave of union reform moving through the states shows that taxpayers, union members and non-union members alike understand worker freedom is a key ingredient to restoring prosperity.

 

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