Now that Democrats in Michigan have won control of the governor’s mansion and both houses of the state legislature for the first time in nearly four decades, they have an excellent opportunity to do what no state legislature in the U.S. has done in over a half-century: repeal a right-to-work law.
Such laws are deliberately anti-union and divisive. They let workers opt out of paying any dues or fees to their union while still enjoying the benefits their union provides them: winning better pay and benefits and fighting to protect them if they’re fired. Pushed by corporations and billionaire donors, Republican lawmakers have enacted these laws in state after state because they weaken labor unions by sapping their treasuries and undercutting their power—both in the workplace and in politics.
In an era when Republicans have repeatedly prevented Congress from enacting pro-union legislation like the Protecting the Right Organize Act, the Michigan legislature—as soon as Democrats take control in January—will be in position to take a momentous step to strengthen unions. Repealing right-to-work in Michigan would be a big symbolic and substantive shot in the arm for labor across the U.S. It would also be a powerful way for Governor Gretchen Whitmer to prove her labor bona fides if she runs for president one day.
Republicans repeatedly claim that right-to-work laws are pro-worker because they let a company’s employees opt out of paying any union dues or fees. But supporters of these anti-union laws ignore the other side of the coin: These laws harm the many workers who are strong union supporters by weakening their unions and by forcing those workers to pick up the financial slack from their free-riding co-workers. In this way, these laws divide workers against each other—and undermine worker solidarity.
Sowing division among workers was what motivated the biggest, early champion of right-to-work laws: Vance Muse, an antisemite and white supremacist from Texas who saw these laws as a way to prevent African American and white workers in the South from joining together to demand higher pay and better treatment. Muse pushed the right-to-work idea hard in the 1930s and 1940s, viewing it as a way to enable racist white workers to opt out of being in unions alongside Black workers.
Not only do right-to-work laws undermine unions, they also hurt workers’ wages. The Economic Policy Institute found that workers in right-to-work states earn 3.1 percent less than comparable workers in states without such laws, after adjusting for differences in the cost of living. That means a worker’s pay is on average around $1,600 less per year.
One study found that the portion of workers in right-to-work states who opt out of paying union dues or fees ranged from 9 percent in Georgia to as high as 27 percent in Louisiana, 31 percent in Florida, and 39 percent in South Dakota. This translates into a sharp decline in dues payments, and that weakens union treasuries and hampers unions’ ability to do organizing and other work.
Another study found that in the five years after states enacted right-to-work, the number of organizing drives dropped by 28 percent, and in the following five years by an additional 12 percent. Unionization victories fell by 46 percent in the first five years and 30 percent the next five.
There’s one other thing that Republican supporters of these anti-dues laws will never admit in public: They like these laws because they reduce organized labor’s voice and strength in politics, and that hurts the Democratic Party. In a recent study, three scholars found that “when right-to-work laws are in place, Democrats up and down the ballot do worse.” They concluded that in “right-to-work counties,” Democrats perform about 3.5 percentage points worse in presidential elections, with “similar effects in Senate, House, and Gubernatorial races, as well as on state legislative control.” That study also found a 2 percent drop in voter turnout in “right-to-work counties.” Let’s not forget that in 2016, Hillary Clinton lost Wisconsin and Michigan by less than 1 percent of the vote.
There’s no denying right-to-work’s negative effects on unions. In the years since Michigan enacted right-to-work in 2012, union membership in that state has fallen 15 percent, far greater than the 3.5 percent nationwide drop in membership over the same period.
Republicans know that right-to-work laws weaken unions, and that’s why they love them. In early 2017, right after Republicans won control of both legislative chambers in Kentucky for the first time since 1920, GOP leaders made right-to-work the very first law the new legislature passed. Similarly, in 2016, as soon as Republicans in West Virginia won control of both legislature houses for the first time since the 1930s, that state enacted right-to-work. The Koch brothers’ political arm, Americans for Prosperity, backed by a network of right-wing billionaires, pushed behind the scenes for Kentucky and West Virginia to enact these laws. They did so not just to undermine organized labor, but to make the statement that those states were now officially proclaiming themselves anti-union—and, yes, that helps lure some low-road, union-hating corporations to those states.
Conservative operatives know that once a state passes right-to-work and other anti-union measures, it’s easier for Republicans to enact other conservative legislation, like restricting voting rights, cutting Medicaid, and giving tax breaks to corporations and the rich. In his book State Capture: How Conservative Activists, Big Business, and Wealthy Donors Reshaped the American States—and the Nation, Alexander Hertel-Fernandez wrote, “State policy moves sharply to the right after the passage of anti-union right-to-work laws—with real consequences for ordinary Americans on issues like minimum wage and labor market standards.”
When Republican-dominated legislatures in Indiana, Missouri, Wisconsin, and Michigan passed right-to-work laws between 2012 and 2017, they too wanted to make a strong anti-union statement—one that stirred considerable anger in the Midwest industrial belt, where labor unions have played a huge, historic role since the 1930s and where union contracts with General Motors, Ford, Chrysler, and U.S. Steel played a pivotal role in building the world’s largest and richest middle class. If Michigan repeals right-to-work, it will make an important statement to counter red state, anti-union legislatures.
With 71 percent of all Americans, including 56 percent of Republicans, voicing approval of unions in an August Gallup poll, it is clear that red state legislatures—pushed by corporations and wealthy donors—are often far more anti-union than the public at large. In 2018, Missourians voted 67 to 33 percent to repeal a year-old right-to-work law enacted by the state legislature.
Over the past year, the U.S. has seen exciting unionization efforts at Starbucks, Amazon, Trader Joe’s, Chipotle, and Apple, but these efforts have faced a fierce counterattack from corporate America. Starbucks and other companies are trying their hardest to slow, even strangle, these organizing drives. Unions need all the help they can get to sustain their recent momentum and grow. Repealing right-to-work in Michigan—a cradle of American unionism—could be just the jolt the labor movement needs.