Good news from Michigan: The Wolverine State is close to adopting a right-to-work law that would make paying union dues voluntary. Right now employers must fire unionized workers who do not pay dues. Calling this a big deal would be an understatement.
Republicans have large majorities in both houses of the state legislature. Until now, however, Governor Rick Snyder has insisted right to work was not on his agenda. But today he changed his tune and called for the legislature to pass the bill — Snyder’s support removes the last obstacle to right to work passing in Michigan.
How did this happen? For one, unions badly miscalculated. They tried to amend the state constitution to preemptively ban right to work and attempted to elevate union contracts above state law. Michigan voters roundly rejected the proposal, but the debate put the issue on the public’s agenda.
Snyder has focused on turning around Michigan’s moribund economy, which probably explains his finally warming to right to work — it makes a state much more attractive for businesses. Employers want to know unions will leave them alone if they treat their employees well. Right to work gives them that assurance.
Making dues voluntary reduces the financial incentives for unions to organize at companies where they have only moderate support. Even if they win, they cannot force reluctant workers to pay dues, which makes union organizers less aggressive. The number of union organizing drives falls 40 to 50 percent after states pass right-to-work laws.
A lower likelihood of workplace unionization makes a state more appealing to businesses. Studies find states with right-to-work laws employ one-fifth more manufacturing workers than states without them. And if Michigan needs anything right now, it is jobs.
Unions furiously oppose the proposal. Polling shows that almost a quarter of union members would stop paying dues if they could. That would cost Michigan unions $100 million a year (they represent 700,000 Michiganders, and their dues average $600 to $900 a year). Union bosses would much rather workers had no choice.
But many workers feel differently. The most vocal calls for right to work have come from workers upset with their unions. Terry Bowman, a member of UAW Local 898 who works at Ford’s Rawsonville plant, argued for right to work long before Republicans considered taking it up; Bowman believes the government should not force workers like him to support a union they oppose.