On Tuesday, Michigan became the nation's 24th state, and the most unionized state, to enact right-to-work legislation. Thousand of protesters failed to dissuade Republican governor Rick Snyder from signing a law that will likely weaken unions and lower wages, but do nothing to help the state's economy. Along with anti-union legislation in other Midwestern States, however, it could transform the national political landscape.
For the past two years, the Governor had publicly stated that "divisive" right-to-work legislation was "not on his agenda." Then, at the last minute, he endorsed the bill because it would protect "worker choice" on union membership and help to grow the Michigan economy - both highly questionable claims. First, under federal law, neither unions nor employers can require employees to join unions in either the public or private sectors, so Snyder is professing to give employees a right that they already enjoy. The legal question here is whether nonmember employees in unionized workplaces should be required to pay an "agency fee" to the unions that are legally required to cover the cost of negotiating for them. Equally dubious are Snyder's claims that right-to-work will boost the Michigan economy, as research indicates lower wages and poorer labor standards, not greater economic development, are the most likely results of the anti-union legislation.
So if right-to-work fails to advance employee choice or promote job creation, why did Snyder really throw his weight behind it?
Governor Snyder portrays himself as a pragmatist, rather than a right-wing ideologue, but in reality he has supported a sustained assault on unions. Early in his term, Snyder eliminated collective bargaining rights for almost 20,000 subsidized home-based childcare providers. In March 2012, he signed legislation prohibiting union representation for graduate assistants at Michigan public universities, and the following month he prohibited union dues for teachers and other school employees from being collected by payroll deduction. On labor issues, Snyder is a moderate only
when compared with more extreme Michigan Republicans.
The reason behind the governor's flip-flop is that right-to-work is being championed by the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) and Americans for Prosperity, militant conservative groups funded by the billionaire Koch Brothers. Following the Republican election victories in 2010, ALEC has pushed hundreds of anti-union bills in states across the country. It has promoted right-to-work in 19 states and succeeded in passing the legislation in neighboring Indiana in 2011. Now that Snyder has become a right-to-work convert, even the Detroit Free Press, which had previously endorsed him for governor, has accused him of "drinking the Koch Brothers' Kool-Aid."
As the Koch Brothers understand, right-to-work legislation could have an enormous impact on national, as well as state, politics. In November, President Obama won only four right-to-work states - Florida, Iowa, Nevada and Virginia - and lost heavily in most of the other 19. Union support was key to his victory in Nevada, as well as in several Midwestern States. In Ohio - most likely the next right-to-work target for anti-union conservatives – 70 percent of union members voted for Obama, even though the state's unionists are 83 percent white, 40 percent evangelical and 53 percent gun owners.
While the evidence on the impact of right-to-work is inconclusive on several issues, the legislation clearly weakens unions. Most right-to-work states have always had feeble labor movements. But with 17.5 percent density and 671,000 members, Michigan is still a union stronghold, even though the state's powerhouse union, the United Auto Workers, has declined in membership from 1.53 million in 1979 to 380,000 in 2011.
Organized labor hopes that there will be a political backlash against Michigan Republicans, but it is equally likely that in four years, the state's unions will be weaker, and few voters will remember the underhanded way that GOP lawmakers enacted right-to-work. And if ALEC and other Koch-supported efforts are successful in forcing through right-to-work legislation in the battleground states of Ohio and Pennsylvania - both currently controlled by conservative Republicans - the next Democratic presidential nominee could face a radically different political landscape come 2016.
On a recent visit to Michigan, President Obama stated that right-to-work laws have "everything to do with politics." As Obama suggests, the real purpose of right-to-work is not to protect employee choice or promote economic growth, but to damage the organizations that give an effective political voice to Michigan workers, instead of to the Koch Brothers.