Worker Freedom in Michigan: The Road Ahead

(Editor's note: The following commentary appeared in the May 2013 issue of Townhall Magazine.)

It’s been five months since Michigan joined the ranks of 23 other states that put workers and job creators above special interests when Gov. Rick Snyder signed right-to-work legislation. Unions can no longer get workers fired who refuse to financially support them.

It has been confusing to say the least; some workers were able to exercise their rights as soon as the new law took effect at the end of March. However, most will have to wait for their current union contracts to expire, which could be years. The special interests that rely on forced union dues have tried to thwart worker freedom in this state.

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Michigan Education Association President Steven Cook in a Jan. 22nd email told his members that his union’s “goal is to settle, extend or modify contracts with school districts so that locals are” as he euphemizes “protected from the law's negative impacts.”   

One of the most blatant examples of these special interests at play occurred in the Detroit suburb of Taylor. The teachers union and school board there in early February agreed to a new four-year contract that cut teacher pay by 10 percent. The two sides also signed a separate, 10-year agreement known as a “security clause” that locks teachers into paying union dues or agency fees until 2023. The Mackinac Center Legal Foundation on Feb. 28 filed a lawsuit on behalf of three teachers against the union and school district over what should be called an insecurity clause. We believe this side deal is illegal under Michigan law.

The union local, it should be noted, received an “award” from the American Federation of Teachers-Michigan for causing 7,500 students to miss classes on Dec. 11, 2012, as the district was forced to close due to a teacher “sickout” during which teachers traveled to the state Capitol to protest right-to-work legislation.

No matter how many delay tactics unions use to postpone right-to-work in Michigan, the wait will be worth it. 

Workers in right-to-work states enjoy higher wage growth and, when cost of living is factored into the equation, better compensation than their counterparts in forced unionism states.

This may be another reason why unemployment is lower in right-to-work states and why these states generally have higher population growth.  Job creators see states with right-to-work laws as being better for business.

Unions will have an uphill battle to defeat the law. Last November Michigan voters overwhelmingly rejected two union-sponsored ballot proposals. Voters rejected Proposal 2 by 15 points; the bill would have given government union contracts an effective veto over legislation and made right-to-work legislatively impossible.

Recent polling indicates that Michigan voters approve of right-to-work 51 to 41 percent, making union efforts potentially more perilous.

There is no surprise that unions will fight to bring back their forced dues monopoly. Protests outside the state Capitol the day the bills were passed turned violent, and several lawsuits have been filed trying to delay the legislation. Big Labor will most likely attempt some sort of referendum on it come November 2014. In the meantime, there has been discussion about “outing” union members who dare to exercise their freedom, including intimidation tactics such as posting their names on bulletin boards in the workplace.

Those who do not find value in financially supporting their union have been castigated as “freeloaders.” The free rider argument, however, is patently false, as it assumes that unions spend all or most of their money on collective bargaining activities. LM2 reports filed with the federal government tell a different story.

Certainly even the most ardent supporters of organized labor would argue against every business being forced to pay chamber of commerce dues, yet chambers around the country work on behalf of all businesses. Unions are free to pursue changes to federal law that would allow “members only” agreements that would allow them to represent only those who pay dues, but thus far labor has been reluctant to force that issue because unions prefer forcing everyone to pay, even those who vote “no” on contracts.

The road ahead for worker freedom will not be without difficulty, but after the dust settles and right-to-work has been solidified by the voters and the courts, Michigan will truly be a more free and prosperous state. 



F. Vincent Vernuccio is director of labor policy at the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a research and educational institute headquartered in Midland, Mich.