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“Today, we are coming together to restore workers’ rights, protect Michiganders on the job and grow Michigan’s middle class,” the state’s Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer said after signing the bill.
Right-to-work laws allow workers in unionized workplaces to decline to pay dues even if their wages, benefits and employment rules are set by a union contract. These laws have been a popular tool of union-skeptic lawmakers since the mid-20th century, when a wave of conservative states enacted them following the New Deal era’s union boom. It wasn’t until the early 2010s, following a red wave midterm election, that Republican legislators succeeded in bringing right-to-work laws to states that had once been at the heart of the American labor movement — including Michigan, Wisconsin and Indiana.
This expansion of right-to-work laws indicated just how much unions have declined in power. In 2022, just 10% of American workers belonged to a union, the since the government began tracking union membership in the early 1980s.
Michigan’s reversal of that effort reflects the recent surge in support for unions among elected Democrats and the . In 2021, the Democratic-led House of Representatives passed the , a pro-union bill that would — among other things — eliminate right-to-work laws nationwide. But that bill stalled in the Senate and is all but dead, for now, in the GOP-led House.
Why there’s debate
The debate over right-to-work laws is consistently split along partisan lines, with Republicans strongly in favor and Democrats staunchly opposed.
Conservative proponents say right-to-work laws promote freedom of expression as workers are not forced to contribute to a union that may advance causes they oppose. Backers also argue that the laws boost the economy because businesses are more likely to create jobs in places where they won’t have to contend with powerful worker unions. The most explicitly anti-union lawmakers say right-to-work laws are an important tool for weakening the labor movement, which they view as an extension of the Democratic Party.
Liberal opponents of right-to-work laws say they suppress workers by undermining unions. Many progressives cite , who said, “Wherever these laws have been passed, wages are lower, job opportunities are fewer and there are no civil rights.” A shows that states with right-to-work laws are correlated with less pay, worse benefits and more on-the-job injuries. The laws also create what critics often call the “free rider” program, in which certain workers get the advantages of union-negotiated contracts without having to contribute to the union itself.
Supporters of Michigan’s right-to-work repeal say it may be difficult to replicate their success elsewhere in the country. Most states with these laws on the books are led by Republicans who support them. Any hopes of a nationwide change are slim given the current makeup of Congress.
Right-to-work protects workers’ freedom
“This Democrat-led assault on the rights of Michiganders to choose their own affiliations and withhold their support from political organizations that do not represent their values is just the beginning.” — Editorial,
Opposition to the laws is about political power, not what’s best for workers
“The unions want captive members they can dun for dues that can go to political causes they favor. Repaying unions is the priority for [Democratic] officials, and harm to the economy is barely worth a chuckle.” — Editorial,
Right-to-work promotes investment in communities that need it most
The laws make unions actually earn worker support, rather than coercing people into membership
“Is it really so bad for unions to have to convince people to voluntarily join the union and pay dues? I’m not so convinced it’s a bad thing. It creates a challenge for the union to try and neutralize that potential free-rider effect. ... And the question is, does the union meet the challenge?” — Harry Katz, labor economist, to
No one should be forced to join a union if they don’t want to
“Like a business’s membership in a local chamber of commerce, union membership may help or hurt individual employees. Each situation is different and each person can weigh the pros and cons of joining. That’s the beauty of freedom of association — which hopefully will be embraced, not taken away, going forward.” — Jarrett Skorup,
Any policy that weakens unions ultimately hurts everyone in the working class
“Trickle-down politicians in the 28 states that have passed … these laws [have presented them] as a way to save workers money, but really they starve unions of funds, power, and bargaining capability — the unions who have successfully gotten the workers better pay, adequate breaks, and safe hours. That's bad news for workers. A large body of evidence proves that as unions continue to lose power, economic inequality grows.” — Paul Constant,
Right-to-work only attracts businesses that want to exploit workers
“[Corporate supporters] say right-to-work states attract more businesses. The truth is they attract businesses that seek lower wages, businesses that don’t invest in their workers, don’t do research and development, don’t add value. And therefore are the most likely to go abroad for even cheaper labor at the slightest provocation.” — , former U.S. secretary of labor
If right-to-work really benefited workers, conservatives wouldn't support it
“Many supporters of right-to-work laws insist that they’re not being anti-union — they insist it’s all about helping workers by giving them the freedom to stop paying union dues. It’s odd, however, that these right-to-work supporters who say they’re eager to help workers are rarely or ever seen doing anything else to help workers. They typically oppose raising the minimum wage; they oppose legislation to give workers paid sick days and paid parental leave; they oppose strengthening regulations to improve job safety.” — Steven Greenhouse,
These laws allow “free riders” to benefit without paying their fair share
“Right-to-work … entitles employees to the benefits of a union contract — including the right to have the union take up their grievances if their employer abuses them — without paying any of the cost.” — Chloe Cerutti,
Laws like right-to-work prevent workers from fixing America’s unequal economic system
“Workers are looking to unions as critical vehicles for fixing what’s broken at work and in our wildly unequal economy. The large gap between the share of workers who want a union and the share of workers who are in a union underscores that our system of weak federal labor laws, which are further undermined by RTW measures in over half of U.S. states, is not working.” — Jennifer Sherer and Elise Gould,
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Photo illustration: Jack Forbes/Yahoo News; photos: Andrew Lichtenstein/Corbis via Getty Images