The state of Michigan is well-known for many things (cherries, sand dunes, and its famous mitten shape), but economically, Michigan is probably most distinguished by its connection to the automobile industry and, with that, its steeped history in the labor movement.
In 2022, 14% of Michigan workers were part of a union, above the national average of 10.1%. Among all 50 states, Michigan boasts the 12th highest unionization rate. This strong union foothold is largely due to the continued presence of the “Big Three” automakers in Michigan – General Motors, Ford, and Chrysler – and the United Auto Workers union, one of the largest and most powerful unions in America.
Despite its relative strength, however, Michigan’s union presence is not as strong as it once was. Since Republican lawmakers passed a “right-to-work” (RTW) law in 2012, over the last decade unionization rates in Michigan have plummeted. The percentage of American workers in unions has been falling around the country in recent decades, but since the RTW change, Michigan’s unionization rate has fallen faster than the country as a whole.
Michigan Democrats – who now control both chambers of the legislature and the governorship – took notice of this alarming decline and, last week, took decisive action. Last Friday Governor Gretchen Whitmer signed legislation that repeals the state’s right-to-work law, the first such piece of legislation in over 60 years. Union leaders have warned that a full rebound of organized labor in the state will take time, but this repeal offers unions some much-needed relief.
Right-to-work laws essentially allow workers to opt out of joining unions or supporting unions financially, even if they are technically represented by a union in contract negotiations. Under the National Labor Relations Act, if a majority of workers in a unit vote to join a union, that union must represent all workers in that unit – including those that didn’t vote to join. In non-RTW states, unions require these nonmembers to pay a “fair share fee,” a small percentage of regular union dues that covers only the basic costs of union representation. In the 27 states with RTW laws, however, unions are barred from collecting these fair share fees from nonmembers. This means that, in RTW states, unions are legally obligated to negotiate on behalf of workers even if those workers pay them nothing in fees. Workers can enjoy all the perks that come from union representation – better wages, benefits, working conditions, etc. – without actually supporting the union through membership fees or fair share fees. This inevitably ends up hamstringing unions’ abilities to operate effectively.
Proponents of right-to-work laws argue that these laws protect workers’ freedom to choose whether to join unions or not. They also say that they boost job growth as they promote a “business-friendly” environment that attracts employers. They’re wrong on both accounts. First, no one is currently being or has been “forced” to join a union – that is illegal. In non-RTW states, workers are simply required to pay basic fair share fees for the benefits that they receive from union representation in contract negotiations (benefits which far outweigh the small fee they’re charged). Moreover, studies have failed to find any meaningful difference in the rates of employment growth between RTW states and non-RTW states.
In reality, RTW laws spell nothing but trouble for the states that enact them. For one thing, they depress unionization rates (which is, in many ways, the real point of RTW laws). A recent study found a 20% difference in the unionization rates between RTW and non-RTW states. As mentioned, after Michigan enacted its RTW law in 2012, union membership plummeted. Over the last decade, unions in Michigan lost no fewer than 93,000 members; the percentage of workers who were part of unions dropped from 16% in 2012 to 13% in 2021. This isn’t too surprising given that workers in RTW states have the option to “free ride” – to get the perks of unions without paying for them. Union leaders then have to spend more of their time and energy trying to keep union members enrolled than on recruiting new members.
Right-to-work laws also depress wages and other benefits that unions typically enjoy. Recent research has found that workers in non-RTW states receive on average 7.5% higher wages than their counterparts in RTW states. Workers in RTW states also have reduced access to healthcare and retirement plans and experience more fatalities on the job. This all leads to an increase in inequality, as employers siphon off larger and larger chunks of company profits in the absence of collective bargaining by unions. In Michigan, over half of all state income now flows to the top 10% of Michigan earners, a number that has increased in large part due to the declining power and presence of unions in the state.
Michigan Democrats clearly made the right move with the repeal of their state’s RTW law, and it’s an example legislators in the rest of the country should follow. There is immense support for unions from the American public, the likes of which the country has not seen in decades. 71% of Americans now approve of unions – a 60-year high. There have been several high profile union fights at big-box chains like Amazon, Starbucks, Trader Joe’s, Apple, and REI. Corporate executives that launch union-busting campaigns are being held to account – former Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz will face a grilling by the Senate tomorrow about his own such campaign.
In short, there is serious progress being made in the labor movement, and states like Michigan give us a lot to be optimistic about. But there’s still a long way to go. The 27 remaining states with RTW laws need to follow Michigan’s lead and repeal their own laws. Action also needs to be taken at the federal level. As workers continue to unionize new industries and workforces, corporate executives will employ new and more ruthless tactics to stop them. That’s why it is imperative for Congress to pass the PRO Act and provide federal protections for unions and anyone that wishes to start or join a union.
Everyone has the right to work in America. But sadly, not everyone in America has the right to proper protection under a union. It’s time to change that.