The Right To Work

What can be done to turn Michigan's economy around? There are plenty of theories, but theories are just ideas with nowhere to go. Former U.S. Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich laid out a few bold ideas during a May visit to Mackinac Island. Among them: Declare Detroit a tax-free zone and make Michigan a Right-to-Work state. Making Detroit a tax-free zone is about as likely as Gingrich becoming our next governor. The Right-to- Work question is at least being asked of those candidates who show up at gubernatorial debates.

A Right-to-Work (RTW) law would prohibit any business or labor union in Michigan from requiring a worker to pay union dues in order to keep his or her job. If the union does a good job of representing the concerns of the workers it should have no trouble in gaining their moral and financial support. With mandatory membership, workers either pay their dues or lose their job, even if they disagree with the actions and agenda of union leadership. Many political observers have said Michigan would never adopt RTW laws because of Big Labor's history and strong presence in the state.

Labor unions say RTW laws cause wages to go down and make the workplace less safe. The Michigan AFL-CIO cites statistics showing that employees who belong to unions earn higher wages and are more likely to receive health insurance as a benefit, compared to non-unionized workers. But RTW laws are not about union versus non-union workplaces. RTW laws would still allow workers to organize a union if they have at least 50 percent support, and labor unions would still bargain collectively for their members. The unions would have to expend more effort and resources pleasing their members, and that may leave less time and money for lobbying in Lansing.

Employers like RTW laws because it gives them predictability, and more control over their companies. Under RTW, unions are less likely to make unreasonable and costly demands, as they must focus on representing the workers instead of rigid demands from union hierarchy. A state with RTW laws has one more incentive to offer potential employers. Birgit Klohs, president and CEO of the Right Place economic development agency, said during a recent debate that when companies scout Michigan, impressions trump statistics. As quoted by Phil Power of the Center for Michigan, Klohs said international and national companies are always fearful of entering a union climate: "companies don't want to get out of paying fair wages. It's about determining their own destiny in dealing with employees."

Labor unions have been losing members in Michigan and need money to promote their political agenda, including opposition to RTW laws. More union members mean more union dues, and that allows Big Labor to support candidates who support labor's agenda of higher taxes, more social programs and more business regulations. That requires more government workers, which happens to be Labor's fastest-growing area of membership.

Statistics indicate faster job growth and higher productivity in RTW states. Labor unions point out that average wages are lower in those RTW states, but the Mackinac Center for Public Policy notes that when you factor in cost of living differences, wages are similar. Mackinac Center President Lawrence Reed is so confident that RTW law would help Michigan attract new jobs, that during the 2007 budget impasse he suggested a compromise: if Democrats insisted on an income tax increase to help balance the budget, why not pass a temporary five-year RTW law? Apparently there weren't any takers.

Every study I've read about shows a strong correlation between RTW laws and job growth. I've yet to see a study that suggests RTW laws cause job loss. Pass RTW laws, attract more job providers, and if you're in a union you like, you can keep it. Period.