Hotly Debated Right-to-Work Law Passes in Michigan

This week, Michigan lawmakers made a monumental move that many did not think possible in a state where major labor unions were born and thrived since the inception of the UAW decades ago. The Great Lakes state joined 23 others in becoming a “right-to-work” state. 

A right-to-work system makes it unlawful for labor unions and employers to enter into a union contract, essentially prohibiting unions from requiring workers to pay union dues and fees or require union membership to work. The controversial law’s key takeaway is that it aims to prevent non-union workers from being excluded, made to pay fees to unions, or fired for not joining a union. 

But some question whether this approach benefits the working class or the politicians who drafted it; or whether it is merely a reflection of modern labor concerns. Proponents of the law claim that most unions are no longer serving the same purpose they once did, and that they are now more interested in special interest gains than workers’ rights. Supporters of the law say right-to-work is really a right to choose--union or no union. These individuals are calling the law “pro-worker.” 

Those in vehement disagreement are calling it “devastating,” saying if workers no longer pay into a union, revenue and strength of the labor force are reduced. Some are even saying that politicians—knowing that unions give workers strength to combat unfair labor policies, low wages, and poor working conditions—are trying to put more control in the hands of the employer. The very idea that “men in blue” and firefighters are still protected under unions, virtually untouched by the new law, indicate that policymakers acknowledge that there are significant benefits to unionization—benefits they don’t want to deprive Michigan’s finest from enjoying. Understandably so, but this can be construed as an admission that labor unions help not hurt all working class people. All-in-all, opponents say, the new law takes away the rights of workers. 

Understanding Right to Work

The right-to-work approach was born from the National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation, which upholds that every citizen of the United States has the right to work in any industry they choose without being forced to join a union to do so. Right-to-work laws are supported by the National Right to Work Committee. 

Under a right-to-work system, no person can be made to pay into unions in order to gain work. The focus is on regulating employer-employee agreements to make it unlawful to hire only union shop workers. In recent years many states have switched to this system, including: 

Alabama, Arizona, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Louisiana, Michigan, Mississippi, Nebraska, Nevada, North Carolina, North Dakota, Oklahoma, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, Virginia, and Wyoming. 

In states where unions prevail, new hires to union shops do not have to become a member right away, but are required to after a set time period. The thought is that this may deter workers from seeking employment with union shop employers and that a right-to-work system opens up jobs to more people. 

Given that it is difficult to quantify the effects of switching from a union-based to right-to-work standard, few, if any, can say for certain how this will fair for Michigan's working class. We can be certain, however, that the debate will rage on as protesters are not likely to recede or policymakers to cave. 

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