Should Michigan become a right-to-work state? To his credit, Compuware Corp. CEO Peter Karmanos stirred discussion of that question in Detroit last month with an emphatic Yes! Until now, compulsory unionism was the elephant in the room that few leaders — business or political — mustered the courage to acknowledge. Perhaps no single action would do more to resuscitate the economy than making Michigan the next right-to-work state.
Right-to-work doesn’t make unions illegal. It simply means that no worker can be compelled to join or pay dues to a labor organization as a condition of employment. It empowers individual workers with a choice, which makes union leadership more accountable. Union leaders, addicted to compulsory dues dollars, dislike the idea, but both labor trends and opinion polls show strong and growing support for it.
Idaho voters adopted right-to-work by a decisive margin in 1986. Unions poured in a fortune to demonize the proposal, declaring that it would pulverize the standard of living. Idahoans saw through the propaganda and ushered in an era of prosperity that continues more than 20 years later. Before 1986, Idaho was growing at a rate more than 3 percent below the national average. Since adopting right-to-work, the state has been one of the fastest growing. Its per capita personal income is forging ahead at a rate more than 8 percent higher than the nation’s as a whole.
Oklahoma’s experience mirrors Idaho’s. Prior to becoming the 22nd right-to-work state in 2001, Oklahoma’s personal income grew at about the same rate as the U.S. average. In the five years since, it has grown 35 percent faster.
Idaho and Oklahoma are not anomalies. Seven of the eight states that experienced nonfarm employment growth of 3 percent or more in 2006 were right-to-work states. And between 1970 and 2000, manufacturing employment grew by 1.43 million jobs in right-to-work states but declined by 2.18 million in non-right-to-work states.
Right-to-work opponents say Michigan would become "an Alabama" if we end compulsory unionism. It’s true that Alabama’s per capita income is lower than Michigan’s, but Alabama is catching up fast. If the trends in both states continue, per capita income in Alabama will exceed Michigan’s in just three years. By 2016, residents in that right-to-work state will be earning $5,288 more than Michiganians on average.
George Mason University economist James Bennett showed in the 1990s that when adjusted for the cost of living, average incomes in right-to-work states were already comparable to or, in some cases, even higher than incomes in compulsory union states.
Union leaders argue that under right-to-work they would have to represent those workers who opt not to join a union. But that’s a "burden" they apparently embrace. Every time a bill is introduced in Congress to allow nonunion workers at a unionized worksite to represent themselves, union leaders go all out to defeat it. The only thing those leaders have to fear from right-to-work is the free choice of the very workers they claim to be in business to help.
Today’s labor markets look nothing like those of 75 years ago. The nature of work itself is being transformed — away from monotonous assembly-line jobs that sometimes invite union intervention and toward more independent, flexible, creative and individualistic work that makes anachronisms of punch clocks and picket lines. Most unions are widely perceived precisely as Karmanos termed them — "fiscally irresponsible" — and as old-fashioned, high-cost barriers to worker entrepreneurship and upward mobility in an increasingly competitive world economy. That’s a big reason why barely 7 percent of private sector workers nationwide belong to unions these days, half the rate of Michigan’s shrinking workforce.
The state of Michigan’s "economic development" efforts have flopped for largely the same reason that a bad restaurant can’t turn itself around by offering discounts or subsidies to a handful of customers. It must change the menu. Featuring actor Jeff Daniels in expensive ads that showcase the state’s handout schemes hardly qualifies as fixing the fundamentals. What’s really dumb and getting dumber is the persistent failure of our state’s leadership to address compulsory unionism.
If the Legislature and the governor will not fix the fundamentals of Michigan labor law by passing right-to-work legislation, then perhaps the voters should do it for them as they did in Idaho and Oklahoma. That would send a powerful message that Michigan trusts the free choice of its workers and is again open for business.
Lawrence W. Reed is president of the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a research and educational institute headquartered in Midland, Mich. This commentary is an edited version of an Op-Ed that originally appeared in the April 26, 2007, Detroit News. Permission to reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided that the author and the Center are properly cited.