Don Kusler: Michigan's right-to-work law confers no rights and creates no work

Published: Sunday, Jan. 6 2013 12:00 a.m. MST

Thousands of protesters rally outside the state Capitol as lawmakers push final versions of right-to-work legislation in Lansing, Mich., Tuesday, Dec. 11, 2012. (Associated Press) Thousands of protesters rally outside the state Capitol as lawmakers push final versions of right-to-work legislation in Lansing, Mich., Tuesday, Dec. 11, 2012. (Associated Press)

WASHINGTON — Right-to-work laws confer no rights and create no work — they're an attempt by employers and the politicians they bankroll to keep workers unorganized, unrepresented and underpaid.

Nevertheless, the lame-duck Republican legislature in Michigan recently passed a so-called right-to-work law, which was instantly signed by the governor. Here's why that was a big mistake for Michigan's workers and economy.

right-to-work proponents claim to be fighting "forced unionism." But under current federal law, no worker is required to join a labor union.

That same federal law, however, requires unions to represent everyone at a given workplace — member or not — in contract negotiations and in settling work-related problems with employers.

Since it's obviously not fair for dues-paying union members to pick up the tab for services provided to nonunion members, nonmembers are sometimes charged a service, or "agency," fee. None of the money collected in agency fees can be used for political, social or any other activities besides employment representation.

So in reality right-to-work is "right-to-freeload" — to get a very valuable service, union representation, without paying for it.

As proof, consider that as labor has declined in influence in the past few decades under fierce attack by big money interests, we've seen the progress of the middle class stalled and the nation's wealth gap widen.

But because unions still do a good enough job of making sure the economy works for their middle-class members, the economic elite would like them completely destroyed. Right-to-work is their favored tool.

And it's effective. After all, if workers can get free union services under right-to-work laws, why would anyone pay dues? As dues decline, so does the strength of the union, until it finally disappears.

Believers in the free market should be offended by right-to-work laws. They interpose the power of the state between the employer and the union by forbidding them to freely enter into an agreement on the kind of "union security clause" that creates the nonmember agency fee. In other words, it makes it illegal for the agreement to require employees to pay their fair share of representation.

Proponents of right-to-work laws argue that enactment will lead to economic growth through a more business-friendly environment. Study after study has found this claim to be untrue.

For example, a 2011 study by Gordon Lafer of the University of Oregon and Sylvia Allegretto of the University of California at Berkeley found that right-to-work laws have not positively impacted job growth.

One part of the study examined the economic climate in Oklahoma after the 2001 passage of right-to-work. The study found that unemployment had doubled in Oklahoma since enactment and that new business arrivals had actually declined.

The study also found that the lower wages and economic insecurity of workers in right-to-work states could make business less inclined to relocate because of declining tax revenues and consumer demand.

Studies like this and a simple comparison of employment rates and wages between right-to-work states and non-right-to-work states makes it fairly certain that Michigan will not reap any economic rewards from the new law.

Instead, it represents a step backward that the state cannot afford. Until we and our elected officials come to grips with the fact that a race-to-the-bottom has no winners, workers and the economy will continue to suffer from the short-sightedness of the misnamed "right-to-work" movement.

Don Kusler is executive director of Americans for Democratic Action.

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