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What Right-to-Work Is and Why It Matters

If you're a union leader, you got some bad news yesterday. Michigan passed a "right-to-work" law that unions argue will hurt them.

There was a quite a protest on the scene:

In a nutshell, the new Michigan law is a medium-sized cut to the throat of labor unions and workers.

It's already the law in nearly half the states in America. And if right-to-work can become law in Michigan - one of the most unionized states in the country - even more states may go the same way.

Let's take a look at the politics behind the law and its impact on labor, on politics, and on you.

What #righttowork is

The Huffington Post explained the law this way:

"Right-to-work laws forbid contracts between companies and unions that require all workers to pay the union for bargaining on their behalf."

When you get hired for a union job - as, for example, a teacher, an autoworker, or a firefighter - you are automatically enrolled in the union and are compelled to begin paying dues and other fees - if you don't have a right-to-work law in your state.

People who support right-to-work say individual workers should be free to make their own decisions about whether they want to join a union. They also say these laws attract employers to the state, boosting the economy.

But unions say that if people opt out, the union doesn't get the money it needs to operate. They also say it weakens their ability to negotiate strongly on the workers' behalf when the time comes. And when the union is weak, its ability to bargain for things like higher wages, more benefits, and better working conditions is weakened too.

So a right-to-work law empowers workers in one sense - giving them the choice over whether to join the union - and disempowers them in another - weakening their union's ability to bargain with management.

Crowd by Capitol steps

By the way, President Obama isn't happy about it. He's against right-to-work because if unions are weaker, it may mean less money for the middle and working class.

The story in Michigan

At Michigan's capitol ...

Michigan Capitol

... Governor Richard Snyder gave the final "go" on a law prohibiting any agreement that requires workers to pay union fees. This prohibition threatens the funding for union services, and ultimately, their ability to bargain for higher wages and other conditions.

Many workers demonstrated, and the state police came out at the governor's office building:

State police line in front of Romney building

Despite the protests, the governor signed the bill into law.

Now union leaders and their supporters are calling for action - a recall election to take the governor out of office, maybe, or a strong push to put more Democrats into the state legislature in the next election.

What effect do right-to-work laws have?

In the U.S., there are now 24 right-to-work states.

Right to Work states

Who's affected most by right-to-work laws?

1. Labor unions. Workers who don't pay their dues end up being free riders who reap the benefits of the union negotiating with The Man on their behalf without paying their share. And when it comes time to sit at the bargaining table, management may see a union without full paying membership as weak.

2. Unionized workers. During economic booms, workers living in right-to-work states see fewer gains. Without strong resources, unionized workers have a tougher time negotiating salary increases.

3. Companies. When the power of labor unions decreases, the power of the company increases. This power dynamic can be attractive to businesses and better for the economy. (Though it's unlikely that a company solely bases its decision to do business in a state based on the state's right-to-work laws.)

4. Politicians. How will the new law affect the state representatives who passed it and the governor who signed it into law? We'll see in the next election.

What are labor unions for, anyway?

Labor unions make up a collective voice that speaks on behalf of workers' rights:

Unions can be a good thing. But many criticize unions for making costly demands that cut deeply into their employers' profits.

Remember the federal government's bailout of the American car companies Chrysler and GM a few years ago? Some say that unions are what brought those corporations down by increasing their pensions to an amount that businesses could no longer pay.

There were other factors, of course, that led to those companies; failures, but that example and a few other things suggest that unions aren't always good for the U.S. economy.

Whether you agree or not, unions are becoming endangered in America.

Why is the Michigan vote a big deal?

It's possible that Gov. Snyder...

Rick Snyder, Michigan governor, Talks with Michigan Municipal League Board

... and the rest of the Michigan's Republicans are a big part of a larger trend.

Michigan is home of one of the most powerful labor unions in the country: the UAW, or United Auto Workers. If a country with a strong labor union can't fight anti-union legislation, it's likely that similar legislation could pass in any state.

More than 14 million Americans belong to labor unions. If you or a family member hold a union job, right-to-work affects you directly no matter what state you live in. Depending on your career goals, there are many ways this can affect you, whether you are sit on the union side or the management side of the table.

Of course, we all benefit from labor - we're taught be union teachers, have our criminals arrested by union police officers, have our fires put out by union firefighters, have our faucets fixed by union plumbers, have our cars built by union auto workers ... you get the picture. What rights do you think those workers should have? It's complicated.

The Kicker

If you care about this story, the kicker is that there are things you can do:


Find out how Michigan's right-to-work law could potentially be undone >>


Learn how to create a positive union-free environment >>


Get in touch with a local union >>

Images used under Creative Commons licensing.

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What Right-to-Work Is and Why It Matters

Jennifer Cain

Jenny Cain is a freelance writer from Orange County, California, and former banana slug, or UC Santa Cruz alum. She teaches classical and jazz piano to high school students and audits classes at UC Irvine. Inspired by Beyonce, Sheryl Sandberg, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, and the Supreme Court’s 3 badass lady justices, she’d like to see the U.S. elect their first woman president. Like, yesterday.

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One Response

  1. cmag1971 says:

    My experience with Unions was in the production department of the NY Times.  There are union members there who never spoke to me even after ten years or so.  Why?  Because I was not a union member.  I witnessed lazy workers protected by the union which ultimately hurts the guy doing the right thing.  Their negotiation tactics were often severe, demands ridiculous – all very costly to the company.  Many were loyal to the union first and would allow that loyalty to destroy the company rather concede to sanity.  Management may have fostered that environment over the years, I don’t know.  What I do know is the print media is in dire straights, and heavy handed unions got the paper in trouble sooner, not later.  They expedited the inevitable….and the costs?  There are a lot fewer union employees.