Right to work one year later: not much has changed

5:55 PM, Dec 8, 2013   |    comments
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(Lindsay VanHulle/Gannett Michigan) -While proponents trumpeted the laws as necessary to draw companies to Michigan, no examples could be found of businesses that have done so because Michigan is now a right-to-work state. A year after right-to-work laws were approved with the promise of radically changing Michigan's business climate, little has changed.

And any changes likely won't be realized for years.

While proponents trumpeted the laws as necessary to draw companies to Michigan, no examples could be found of businesses that have done so because Michigan is now a right-to-work state. Organized labor, whose leaders blasted the legislation as a union-busting attempt in the state that gave birth to unions, has seen far fewer defections among its members than originally feared.

¦Full coverage: Right to work

To be sure, some union members have bolted, and more could follow, since right-to-work provisions don't take effect until current contracts expire. But leaders say the defections are just a fraction of total membership.

"When you're dragged to the edge of the cliff, you get serious and you scratch and you fight really hard," said Ray Holman, legislative liaison for UAW Local 6000, which represents nearly 17,000 state employees.

Over five days in December 2012, the GOP-controlled Legislature and Republican Gov. Rick Snyder rushed a set of bills known as right-to-work into law during a lame-duck session, making Michigan the nation's 24th right-to-work state. Effective since March, the laws - one each covering private- and public-sector employees -make it illegal to force workers to pay union dues as a condition of employment.

The issue, which Snyder had initially insisted was not part of his agenda, became a flashpoint and drew more than 12,000 people to the Capitol over two days in protest. Right-to-work advocates, including GOP lawmakers and the state chamber of commerce, said the legislation gives workers choices. Unions say it's a deliberate swipe at their main revenue source and, therefore, their influence - likely in retaliation for an unsuccessful November 2012 ballot initiative to lock collective bargaining rights in the state constitution.

Unions step up efforts

Workers in a union shop are offered the same pay and benefits under federal law, regardless of whether they're dues-paying members. That's part of the reason union leaders say right-to-work leaves them at a disadvantage - employees can draw the fruits of union negotiations without contributing to the effort.

"There are a number of unions across the state who would probably say that right-to-work was much more a result of the fact that they had not engaged members to the degree that they needed to," said John Beck, an associate professor in Michigan State University's School of Human Resources and Labor Relations. "There's an imperative now that really demands that unions pay more attention to this than they have in the past."

Leaders of several state and local unions said they've stepped up their messages to members - essentially, making a business case for membership.

Local 6000 members who plan to leave the union when its contract with the state expires Dec. 31 are "in the single digits," Holman said.

About 1,500 teachers and other school employees withdrew from the Michigan Education Association, slightly more than 1% of its 110,000 active members, said Doug Pratt, serving as the MEA's temporary member benefits director. Midland-based think tank Mackinac Center for Public Policy filed a grievance on behalf of nearly 10 school employees who claim the MEA violated right-to-work laws by not allowing them to leave the union.

The union maintains the employees did not ask to leave during an annual window each August. The case will be heard in early 2014 by the state's Employment Relations Commission.

Conflicting data

Right-to-work also hasn't been the economic shot in the arm its champions hoped - at least not immediately.

Economists say the state's job market is growing, but it can't be linked directly to right-to-work because of any number of contributing factors - Michigan's deep slump during the recession not least among them.

"It was disingenuous ever to believe that it was an economic development advantage," Beck said. "If that was true, then the places that have had right-to-work the longest, places like across the solid South ... would be absolute, kind of economic development powerhouses. But they're not."

Data tell conflicting stories. Per-capita personal income in right-to-work states in 2011 - including Michigan and Indiana, which weren't yet right-to-work states - was about $38,000, nearly $6,500 less than in states without right-to-work laws, said MSU economist Charles Ballard, who crunched data from the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis.

Yet the Michigan chamber's foundation found personal income rose by more than 48% from 2000 to 2012 in right-to-work states, compared with 43% in states without such laws.

"My view is that the right-to-work is not nearly as beneficial as those who favored it suggested. It's not leading to a transformation of the economy," Ballard said. "It's also probably not as detrimental as opponents of right-to-work suggested it is."

Michael Finney, Michigan Economic Development Corp. president and CEO, would not disclose the number of companies that considered Michigan because of right-to-work. He said corporate site scouts tell the state that some companies used to eliminate Michigan strictly because it didn't have right-to-work laws.

"Michigan has taken a very important step, but it is going to take time," Finney said. "The best evidence of if it's working or not is if our state continues to see continued growth in our business sector."

Looking ahead

One of the key issues to watch over the coming years will be what happens to the UAW when its contracts with the Big Three automakers - General Motors, Ford and Chrysler - expire in 2015.

In 2012, the most recent year available, total UAW membership topped 382,500.

Beck, of MSU, said the UAW has maintained high membership in right-to-work states that have unionized auto factories for decades.

Right-to-work laws have "awakened a sleeping giant" and will only make union leaders work harder to retain their people, said Bill Reed, president of UAW Local 602.

"To be the voice of our membership, we've got to be out there with them and participate in the conversations with them," Reed said. "We can't just represent them from afar."

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