GRAND RAPIDS (WZZM) -- Unions are woven into the fiber of Michigan.
"From a historical point of view, Unions have served a very important purpose," said GVSU Professor Hari Singh. "If you look at the industrial revolution in the 1900's when working in manufacturing was really dangerous... unions were able to organize workers, they were able ask for fair wages and create different kinds of safety precautions. The unions have been very successful as a social movement.
In Michigan, being employed at an organization that has a union usually means you have to join that union. At least, you'll have to pay union dues.
But Michigan's troubles have some wondering if unions are stifling economic growth and job availability. Many believe a state mandate called "Right to Work" could change that.
"When you look at a state like Michigan, which is not a right to work state, compared to some states in the south like Alabama and Texas, things are quite different," Singh said."We've lost about 165,000 jobs in the last eight years or so in the auto-related manufacturing sector."
Dr. Singh, a professor at GVSU's Seidman College of Business, was recently commissioned to study Right to Work. The mandate is active in 22 states, mainly based in the south.
Right to Work laws say you don't have to join a union or pay dues to get a job at a Union supervised shop.
The law does not ban unions, but it decentralizes their power.
Right to work supporters believe Michigan would be more attractive to businesses which may see unions as a roadblock. Many see Right to Work in Michigan as a way to add more jobs.
"The main arguments for the persons who support Right to Work is that it'll make production more flexible, it'll attract more jobs, and the idea that workers should have right to associate with a union if they want to," he said. "You can still belong to a union, but you don't have to belong to a union as a precondition to get the job."
Singh's study found that states with Right-to-Work have a growing auto-workforce compared to states that do not.
"If you look at it, the states that have done right-to-work are doing well economically," said non-union GR Spring and Stamping worker James Chastain. "Obviously, we are not right now."
At the extremes of the states sampled in his study, he found that jobs have increased by nearly 30% in Alabama since 2002.
In Michigan, they've dropped by about 57%.
"On the other side, they will basically talk about the fact that if you don't have unions, then you'll have lower wages, you might have lower benefits in terms of healthcare and other kinds of benefits," he said. "Also, sometimes the production safety record is not as high when there's not much regulation going on."
Singh's study also found that in most cases, wages among those states were significantly lower. He saw a $10,000 to $15,000 average drop in most states compared to Michigan.
"I don't think Right-to-Work is a good thing," said Leon Plastics worker and UAW member Patricia Broxton. "They put so many spins on it and make it sound like 'it's the right to have a job.' No it's not the right to have the job. It's basically the right-to-work for less."
Singh's findings on the prospect of Right to Work helping Michigan create jobs are both equally optimistic and heartbreaking.
"The study which I did, estimated that if we had adopted Right to Work in the beginning, about 25 years ago, we would have saved about 60,000 jobs..."
While that sounds promising, Singh follows with a big 'but'...
"...But how many jobs are we going to attract in the future if we adopt right to work? It's probably going to be marginal," he stated. "Twenty to thirty years ago, then it would have had a major impact."
Singh says we're too late. The trends have driven Michigan's manufacturing muscle down to a small core. He now says it's important to focus on diversification and new opportunities for workers in the state.
"The impacts on not having right to work... most of that impact has already taken place. Even if we adopt right to work today, the impact is going to be in the margin in terms of more job flexibility, in terms of attracting new jobs," he said.
"Most of the trend has already piqued and it's not going to change in the future."