(Editor's note: This commentary originally appeared on the Huffington Post on Dec. 11, 2012.)
Dear Sen. Whitmer,
Despite your claims that a right-to-work law is "anti-woman," it actually represents a non-revolutionary shift towards a freer representation system for those who don't wish to be fired for not joining a union. Yet for some inexplicable reason, unions' prohibitive collective bargaining agreements' impact on women — and the subsequent restriction of women's opportunities and flexibility — is rarely discussed.
We live in a comparatively "heavily unionized" state, where union members account for 17.5 percent of wage and salary workers in Michigan compared to 11.8 percent nationally, according to the 2011 BLS annual report. The MEA, one of Michigan's largest unions, represents a population where women outnumber men three to one. Yet today, the right-to-work law being discussed exempts the two most highly unionized professions — police officers and firefighters — which are heavily dominated by men.
Unions, while historically important in the defense of people's freedom to associate, no longer allow any freedom to "disassociate." That is, a worker can be fired for not paying union dues or agency fees. This creates a system where unions are no longer accountable to their workers for their jobs or benefits because they don't have to be. What's more, when unions claim that they have to then support "free riders," they conveniently forget to mention that they almost always refuse "members only" agreements, which would make this point moot. They choose to represent all employees, not just members, because it gives them greater bargaining power.
For female workers, there's the added cost of restricting flexibility. Flexibility is an essential point when discussing women's economic stature. The Detroit News reported in 2006 that wage differences between men and women are due primarily to disruptions in labor: "According to the U.S. Census, men on average spend 1.6 percent of their work years away from the job; women are away 14.7 percent." For women, union seniority rules are an unnecessary restriction on pay achievement.
IWF's Carrie Lukas has written on this topic at length. She writes:
"In highly unionized industries, like teaching, this means keeping many qualified women (or men) out of the job market. Across the country, union-negotiated rules tend to make it difficult (if not impossible) for school districts to hire the PhD math whiz that has been a stay-at-home mom but who now wants to teach part-time."
All taxpayers pay the cost of government union pension systems, all consumers pay the cost of union mandates and regulations, and all women at unionized companies or professions pay the cost of decreased flexibility, from a myriad of factors like seniority rules, time restrictions and certification regulations.
The Industrial Revolution brought about a dramatic, society-altering reality: work was moved outside of the home. This necessarily impacted women — and not always in a good way — because they could less frequently contribute to the family income without leaving the house. The choice became starker and rifer with tension between "stay-at-home" and "go-to-work."
With the Computer Age, women now have a remarkable alternative to the last 200 years: once again, it has become possible to work from home, or to work from home part-time, but without abandoning the leaps and bounds they've made economically. This is revolutionary, not to mince words. Unfortunately for female union members in Michigan, that progress is thwarted by antiquated union groupthink.