Right-to-work status is a proven job creator; over the last five years right-to-work states have consistently seen payrolls increase at twice the rate of non-right-to-work states.
There is a distinct likelihood that Michigan voters will be
presented with a right-to-work ballot initiative or constitutional amendment
over the next few years. Assuming that such a law passes, what would the effect
be for local governments and their employees? While a right-to-work law would
not have a large, immediate or direct impact on the operation of county and
municipal governments, over the long term such a law could do much to indirectly
improve their financial situations.
Right-to-work protections would not change the basic process of
collective bargaining: governments throughout Michigan would still be expected
to bargain in good faith with their unionized employees, and existing collective
bargaining agreements would remain in effect. Nor would a right-to-work law
affect the binding arbitration procedure for police officers and firefighters.
What would change is the status of "agency fee" clauses that require all workers
covered by the contract to either join the union or pay an agency fee in lieu of
membership dues. Under right-to-work legislation, a collective bargaining
agreement could no longer include this requirement; union membership and
financial support would be left to the discretion of the individual employee.
(Depending on the specific proposal, agency fee clauses might be rendered
inoperative immediately, or they might be allowed to remain in place for the
remainder of the existing contract but prohibited in subsequent agreements.)
So while the immediate effects of right-to-work laws for
municipal governments and their employees might be minimal, the longer-term
effects are likely to be substantial. Right-to-work status is a proven job
creator; over the last five years right-to-work states have consistently seen
payrolls increase at twice the rate of non-right-to-work states. Right-to-work
states have shown much stronger growth in home prices as well. In 2007 the
average home in a right-to-work state appreciated at twice the rate of a
comparable home in a non-right-to-work state. For cash-strapped municipalities
throughout Michigan confronting steadily-declining tax bases and increasing
pressure on social service agencies, such an atmosphere offers the possibility
of stabilized economic conditions.
Equally important, though further down the road, right-to-work
protections may go a long way towards establishing a better balance of political
power at city hall. One of the worst-kept secrets in Michigan politics is the
extent to which unions have invested in political activism. While union
membership is dwindling in the private sector, it remains strong among
As a consequence, local government decision making is distorted
by the demands of influential unions. Much of that influence is bought, directly
or indirectly, with union dues withdrawn from the paychecks of government
employees and controlled by unions with a fairly direct stake in government
expenditures. Because union dues revenue depends directly on union membership —
but not the satisfaction of individual employees — government employee unions
have a direct stake in expanding government payrolls. In a right-to-work
environment, union officials could not assume that new unionized government
employees would pay dues, and would be obligated to ensure that existing members
are satisfied with the representation that they receive and are willing to pay
union dues voluntarily.
There are tradeoffs involved. Union officials would be less
likely to support expanded payrolls, but would be more likely to pursue more
lucrative contracts for existing workers after the enactment of a right-to-work
law. Collective bargaining would remain contentious, but otherwise a
right-to-work law would probably reduce the funds available to union officials
for political activism, giving local officials more room to focus on matters of
Being a right-to-work state is not a panacea. Michigan
government will still need to contain costs and reduce the burdens of both
taxation and regulation on families and businesses. Investigating privatization
and outsourcing of city services can and still should be a priority for
municipalities regardless of Michigan’s right-to-work status, but a
right-to-work law is likely to make the state more attractive to job-creating
businesses while reducing the political influence of unions, making needed
government reforms easier to implement.
Paul Kersey is director of labor policy for the Mackinac
Center for Public Policy.