Studying Right to Work

Guess what? Another poll shows Michigan voters support it.

In an article by Julia Bauer, The Grand Rapids Press announced that it would be releasing a study on the implications that right to work would have in Michigan, as part of its "Michigan 10.0" series. Bauer also announced the result of a poll produced by the Lansing-based Rossman Group and Team TelCom showing that right to work had the support of 51 percent of Michigan voters. As proponents of right to work going back for 20 years, we at the Mackinac Center for Public Policy are looking forward to the results, but until the full report comes out, a few observations are in order.

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Right to What? In the poll, likely voters were asked: "Should Michigan pass a right-to-work law that means employees cannot be forced to join a labor union?" The question that Rossman and TelCom posed wasn’t obviously unfair, but strictly speaking that is not what right to work does. Under Michigan and federal law, a worker at a unionized company or facility is not obligated to formally join the union, but those workers who decline to join can be (and almost always are) obligated to pay an agency fee to the union in order to continue working. This agency fee takes the place of regular union dues that full members pay and is generally the same amount as regular dues. Under a right-to-work law, workers cannot be forced to pay agency fees as a condition of employment.

Surprised? Not Really. The Rossman/TelCom poll showed that 51 percent of likely voters in Michigan supported right to work, while 27 percent were opposed. Rossman Group spokesman Kelly Rossman-McKinney commented that "[g]iven Michigan’s strong labor history, the results are somewhat surprising." But earlier polls have found even stronger support for the right-to-work concept. In June 2002, a Survey 2000 poll showed 62 percent of likely voters in Michigan supporting a measure freeing workers from mandatory union support. A Zogby Poll commissioned by the Mackinac Center in 2004 found that 63 percent of unionized workers thought it was unfair for a worker to lose his or her job because he or she refused to pay union dues to or otherwise support a union.

The Phrase That Pays But For Whom? Bauer also quoted West Michigan Plumbers union official Mark Mangione arguing that Rossman’s use of the phrase "right-to-work" in its polling question might have inflated the numbers. "I’ve never liked the term 'right-to-work' because it has a positive nomenclature. … It makes it sound like you either have a right to work, or a right not to work." But years of union propaganda on the issue — Detroit-area residents may recall a series of negative ads featuring Bill Bonds that ran during the winter of 2007-08 — may have actually given the right-to-work brand a bit of a black eye in the state. Results were actually better when Survey 2000 avoided the phrase. If and when right to work makes the ballot, one can expect unions to repeat the phrase often in as sinister a tone as possible — unless they can come up with something nastier.