Yesterday, Michigan became a Right to Work state! What does that mean? Does it mean folks in Michigan who have been unemployed for the past year will suddenly be offered a living-wage job because of their state-given right to work? Does it mean that undocumented immigrants will finally legally be able to work for better wages and support their families, regardless of immigration status? Does it mean that employment discrimination is finally over in Michigan, and the 23 other “Right to Work” states?!
Well, according to Obama, “Right to Work actually means the right to work for less money.”
Right to Work is born out of the Taft-Hartley Act which makes it illegal for unions to participate in union security agreements. These agreements are how unions and employers negotiate on union membership for employees — they regulate how unions encourage workers to join. The act, implemented state by state, prohibits “closed shop” (all employees must be a member of a union) or “agency shop” (all employees must pay union fees whether or not they choose to participate in the union). According to the Taft-Hartley Act, workplaces must be “open shop” in which employees can choose whether or not to pay dues, participate in the union, and cannot be fired for it either way.
While this might seems like a fair law at first glance, the reality of how it plays out is not so equitable. This law encourages “free riders,” the term for people benefiting from collective bargaining but without paying their dues. It also weakens the overall collective bargaining power of unions which could have negative consequences for workers at all ranges of the pay scale. According to Michigan Senator Carl Levin, the new bill hurts Michigan families:
“For millions of Michigan workers, this is no ordinary debate. It’s an assault on their right to have their elected bargaining agent negotiate their pay, benefits and working conditions, and to have all who benefit from such negotiations share in some way in the cost of obtaining them.”
The really shocking piece of the passage of this bill is how quickly it went through. Governor Snyder and other republicans announced their intentions to turn Michigan into a “Right to Work” state last Thursday. According to an article in the Huffington Post,
“Within hours, the bills were hurriedly pushed through the Senate as powerless Democrats objected. After a legally required five-day waiting period, the House approved final passage. The governor said he saw no reason not to sign the bills immediately, especially with demonstrators still hoping to dissuade him.”
As a result of this hurried legislative process, there wasn’t an opportunity for a surge of organized opposition, like there was in Wisconsin or Indiana. Within a week, all was said and done. Unless the bill is successfully shot down in courts, it will come into effect in April.
There is an enormous difference between labor practices in Right to Work states (there are currently 23) and labor practices in states with stronger collective bargaining power. Right to Work states have significantly lower wages, worse work-place conditions, and overall less workers’ rights on the job. Here is a graphic that illustrates these facts (thank you Wikipedia and the Bureau of Labor Statistics):
Median wages in Right-to-work states
Median wages in Collective-bargaining states
|All occupations||$15.31/hour||$16.89/hour||-$1.58/hour (-9.4%)|
|Middle school teacher||$49,306/year||$55,863/year||-$6557/year (-11.7%)|
|Computer support specialist||$46,306/year||$50,641/year||-$4335/year (-8.6%)|
What does all this mean for us as New Yorkers? While it seems like something so conservative couldn’t happen here, Michigan has historically been one of the labor strongholds, and it seems like Right to Work could hit anywhere next! We need to continue fighting for better policy around sick leave, the passage of the living wage bill, to increase minimum wage (especially for fast food workers), support the Domestic Workers Bill of Rights, continue to organize our casinos and hotels, work for comprehensive immigration reform, and continue fighting for better labor standards everywhere! It’s the only way.