What Right-to-Work Means

A view from a union contract

One could hear several varieties of apocalyptical claims while Michigan was in the process of becoming the 24th right-to-work state in the nation.

Rep. Sander Levin called it "frightful ... for the people of the state of Michigan and for the middle class." The Associated Press said it was a "devastating and once-unthinkable defeat to organized labor." And one union in Michigan claimed it was "a violation of the prohibitions against involuntary servitude." In other words, a form of slavery.

Now that the law is in effect, however, and one can see what right-to-work actually does in practice, these claims seem way out of line. Right-to-work is actually quite simple. It prohibits employers from forcing employees to join or pay a fee to a union to keep their job.

The teachers union contract from the Spring Lake school district demonstrates this change. Here's what its pre-right-to-work contract stipulated: "The [school board] agrees that it shall be a condition of employment that all teachers" do one of the following: 1) "[J]oin the Association and pay the periodic dues ... or; 2) not ... join the Association but ... pay it a representation fee in an amount established in accordance with Union procedures." If teachers still failed to pay the fee, however, the school board agreed to "deduct [it] from the [teacher's] wages and remit same to the Association."

Essentially, the option was join or not join, but either way, pay the union. And if you couldn't do that on your own, it was done for you.

The new Spring Lake contract language regarding union membership is very different, but not nearly as radical or detrimental as some critics of right-to-work made this policy out to be. It simply states: "Teachers shall either elect to join the Association and pay the periodic dues, or teachers may elect not to join the Association and not pay dues."

As this contract demonstrates, right-to-work primarily impacts the relationship between employees and their unions. It gives individuals an opportunity to refuse to financially support an organization they do not feel compelled to support. In other words, it establishes unions as voluntary associations, instead of forced associations.

As Vinnie Vernuccio, director of labor policy at the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, put it: "Right-to-work does not affect collective bargaining in any way except to take away unions' ability to fire workers for not paying them. It makes unions accountable to their members."