Right to work the great divide

September 27, 2009
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Last year’s Regional Policy Conference dared to expose the words “right to work” in the broad daylight of organized labor’s stronghold state, said Jared Rodriguez, Grand Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce senior vice president of government affairs.

“I would say there is more and more conversation that’s come about right now, and the three words — right to work — are actually being uttered,” Rodriguez said last week. “There’s a will by many folks to start these conversations.”

Regional Policy Conference participants voted placing right-to-work status for Michigan on the ballot as their top goal under the “Workforce of the Future” topic. Members of the Economics Club of Grand Rapids will hear an update on the status of the directive at their Oct. 5 meeting. The issue, which appears to most sharply divide the east and west sides of the state, remains at an impasse.

“Right to work” refers to laws that allow people to work in unionized companies without being required to join the union and pay union dues.

Business says right-to-work laws lower their labor costs and make their products more competitive in the marketplace. Organized labor says such laws threaten the gains that unions have secured in the face of never-ending cost-reduction pressure on management.

Federal law allows state measures that permit workers in union shops to reject union membership, dues or payments in lieu of dues. Twenty-two states have enacted right-to-work laws, with many of them in the South.

“It’s easy to say you want to have a right-to-work state,” said Star Swift, a Grand Valley State University professor and former chair of the Michigan Employment Relations Commission. While the public sector is about 80 percent unionized, labor organizations are waning in the private sector, she pointed out.

“I worry now if this state keeps looking at unions as the problem, they are missing the boat. I don’t think companies avoid Michigan primarily because it’s unionized,” Swift said.

The United Auto Workers was born in Detroit in 1935, but job losses in auto manufacturing have drastically reduced membership from its peak of 1.5 million in 1979 to around 500,000 in several industries.

Union campaign contributions to lawmakers have helped make right to work taboo in the state Legislature, said Paul Kersey, director of labor policy at think-tank Mackinac Center for Public Policy near Midland, which bills itself as a “free-market research and education institute.”

“We’ve got very well entrenched unions in this state, with very large war chests. Obviously, politicians are going to be very wary of that,” Kersey said.

Swift said those contributions extend to both sides of the aisle.

State Rep. Gary Knollenberg, R-Troy, said he wasn’t surprised when Democratic leadership in the state House buried the right-to-work related law he introduced in January.

“With the state continuing to suffer from job losses, we really need to look at the things that affect our employers and take advantage of all the tools that allow us to be more competitive,” he said.

Knollenberg’s bill proposed allowing voters to declare local units of government — such as counties, townships and school districts — as open shops.

“I think the political climate in Lansing is very polarized,” said Knollenberg, who plans to run for re-election next year. “It’s dead on arrival.”

Converting Michigan into a right-to-work state would require a grassroots movement strong enough to overwhelm the Legislature’s union stalwarts, Kersey said.

“From my experience dealing with people at the grassroots level, there is increasing interest in it, increasing enthusiasm for the idea,” he said. “There always was support for it out there. Numerous polls have shown 60 percent, or a little higher, of likely voters do support the basic idea of right to work. It doesn’t mean we’re ready to have a ballot proposal next year, but the support has always been out there.”

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