Right to work is a sham


At a pace that would make jet pilots green with envy, the Michigan government introduced, passed, and signed off on “right to work” laws during its lame duck session. Ostensibly, this is to give workers “greater choice” in the matter of their employment, and is such a positive thing that unions and businesses alike should be happy with it, according to Governor Rick Snyder, before he claimed that it will help spur growth of quality jobs in the state.

I’m pretty sure the only thing with factual basis in his statements is that it does indeed give workers more of a choice in their employment, but it’s not exactly a good one.

Some background on the labor movement and right to work: Unions rose to prominence after a long struggle in the late 1800s into the first half of the 1900s to gain what are now widely considered essentials to a strong middle class: health and safety laws, the five-day work week, a decent wage, vacation time, sick days, overtime pay, health insurance, and so on. It was a long and, at times, deadly struggle, when the government sent troops out to break up union strikes by force. Eventually labor won these concessions from a lot of businesses.

It was able to do this because of the concept of the “union shop.” What this means is workers in an industry or a shop bonded together for contract negotiations. In return, these people would join the union, or at the least pay union fees, and let the union negotiate their contract with management. After all, a larger group of people has greater clout when negotiating. Those non-member fees go specifically to the cost of running the union, and not toward any political campaign.

The argument from those who shoved right to work through by a slim margin — the vote was 58-52 in the Michigan House, where Republicans are losing five seats in January — is that workers who want to work in a union shop without joining the union should not be forced to pay these union fees. It lets them reap the benefits of union negotiations without paying into it — getting something for nothing.

The more workers who are outside of the union, the less clout the union has in negotiations. Eventually, a business can get enough non-union members that even a strike is no longer practical, and without that threat, there is little a worker can do to wring concessions such as better pay or benefits out of their employers.

There is another angle to this whole mess, and it’s political. Unions almost exclusively back the Democratic Party financially and in terms of getting people out to vote. Less money and fewer people for the unions means less money and manpower to get Democrats into elected positions, which is a positive development for Republicans, to say the least.

The methodology used to pass it is pretty suspect as well. The bills had virtually no discussion and were effectively modeled after the sample bill created by the American Legislative Exchange Council, to the extent that the bill affecting public workers is being questioned as even workable under Michigan law. The Republicans also attached a budget appropriation to the bill for no reason other than to block it from a referendum, as under the Michigan constitution, it is illegal to put budgetary matters before the public for votes. This doesn’t scream “budget” to me.

Furthermore, a study by the online magazine Bridge found no evidence that right-to-work laws in other states have helped attract more jobs, but it did find evidence that suggests workers, union or non-union, make less money than their fellow citizens in states with right-to-work laws: approximately $1,500 less a year when adjusted for the cost of living.

It’s not a surprising statistic to me; while employers may provide employees with sweet deals to keep them from unionizing, if there is no threat from a union, nor a threat from workers going to a union company for a better deal, they can save a substantial amount of money by reducing pay or benefits.

The labor movement has been hurting for decades. A gap in pay between wage workers and top executives at companies has been getting ever larger since the 1980s, coinciding with unions weakening across the board. Some common complaints about our current jobs situation is that many openings are low-wage, part-time, no benefits, temporary, heavy workloads, etc., things that unions formed to push back against. Meanwhile, it’s hard not to hear stories about big businesses posting record profits and executives getting multi-million dollar bonuses.

Unions are at a crossroads; they clearly have plenty of reason to start growing into new parts of the economy to help workers decrease the money gap, but they have been on the defensive for so long, I’m not sure they quite realize it. Meanwhile their opponents have been monopolizing airtime against them, vilifying them as the reason for the shape of the economy.

Some, including myself at one time, argued that unions are an unnecessary holdover from when people toiled in oftentimes-deadly conditions with little to show for it. Nowadays, the thinking goes, they serve no purpose but to get in the way. Looking around me though, it seems as though their work is not done, and may indeed never be complete.

My grandfather Sam Ariganello was a member of the Steelworkers union for roughly 42 years. My dad and most of his brothers have been in unions for much of their working lives. Despite having no college education, the successes of the unions allowed them to live relatively comfortable middle-class lives, even now. Were my grandfather still alive, he would be livid to see politicians undermining the very thing that made the American middle-class what it is, let alone in his own backyard.

I’m right there with you, Grandpa.


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