On Tuesday, the Michigan state legislature approved a controversial bill that labor advocates say would hamstring union workers. Now that the bill has passed, Gov. Rick Snyder (R) could sign it into law as early as Wednesday.
The bill aims to make Michigan a "right to work" state, meaning that employees would not be required to pay union dues at businesses where unions exist. Supporters of the bill say it would attract new employers to Michigan, but labor advocates say it would strike a blow to union finances, hurt the ability of employees to negotiate, and allow workers to skip paying dues while still enjoying the benefits of a unionized workplace. On Monday, President Obama, speaking in Detroit, said that "so-called 'right-to-work' laws [...] don't have to do with economics, they have everything to do with politics," and that "what they're really talking about is giving you the right to work for less money."
We asked our readers in Michigan how they felt about the bill and how its enforcement would affect their lives and livelihoods. Our question drew a swift and sharply divided body of responses, with readers in the Great Lakes State offering vehement arguments both for and against the legislation. (For every two people who said they supported the bill, we heard from five who opposed it, so we've maintained that ratio in our excerpts below.) The letters ranged far and wide, covering topics as diverse as schoolkids, retirees, international students and small business owners. Here is a sampling of our Michigan readers' thoughts:
'This Bill Is Going To Affect Every Single Person': Readers Opposed To Right-To-Work
From a reader in Ionia:
I own a small business where a large portion of the income is from customers with some disposable income. If this legislation goes through, a lot of them will be paid less while their employers will make more. If they are making less, they will put food on the table and roof over their heads before they will use my services.
A retiree voiced concerns about his cash flow:
As a retired sheet metal worker, Synder has already taxed my pension. Now as noted from other states, my pension will make adjustments because of any new hires [who] will not pay dues, and the eventual outcome will be fewer workers, most likely making less money, and fewer deposits to the pension fund.
Another reader warns about the ripple effects the bill could have:
I am a retired teacher and therefore a former union member. Every citizen of Michigan will be affected by the right-to-work bill. There will be lower wages, meaning less income tax dollars to provide infrastructure and build schools. There will be fewer workers covered by health care, meaning longer lines at the ER and fewer healthy children. There will be fewer retirees because, with less income, people will be forced to work longer, leaving fewer jobs for younger workers.
The lights of Michigan became very dim under John Engler but they brightened significantly under Jennifer Granholm. It appears Rick Snyder may just turn off the lights altogether.
We heard from the younger generation...
My father is a member of the UAW (United Auto Workers) and passage of the labor legislation will directly affect me, as a dependent seventeen year-old girl. If the UAW and other unions are losing money and positions, my dad is losing money and potentially his position. The new legislation will start the ball rolling on financial crises for unions and the UAW, and my family cannot afford for this to happen. I need to attend college in the fall and within the next five years, [and] so will my two younger brothers. I look at my dad and all the work he puts in at his job (coincidentally, at a plant in Redford, MI, where President Obama spoke [this week]) and cannot feel anything but pride. Taking away resources and pay from him and the union he proudly belongs to is wrong.
...the university community...
I have continuing [faculty] tenure, and after more than 40 years on the job I will be retiring soon, so I'm not directly impacted. But without a strong union, administrators will use more low-paid, less-experienced grad students and part-time faculty to teach more and more classes -- not a good situation, especially for a school that caters to many non-traditional and underprivileged students.
...and the schoolteachers:
I am member of MEA in Michigan. It will definitely affect me, as well as the kids sitting in my classroom. We don't only bargain for us, but for smaller class sizes, curricular issues, and working conditions... [A school can't be] run like a business that produces products and not people. Children come with an infinite set of variables. We don't have some engineer that can swoop in and fix a finite set of variables, like on an automotive line. We need to be run by educators for educators, and more importantly, [for] the children we teach. Governor Snyder is a big-business man who thinks schools run like a business. He is wrong.
One reader told us how unions had made her mother's life easier:
My mother is a former union member. Thanks to her union, she has a supplemental insurance for health care. Her employer originally offered retiree insurance, but shortly after she changed jobs, they did away with it. Over a number of years unions came in and negotiated retiree benefits. Without these benefits, her lifestyle would be adversely affected.
We got an urgent message from a rural part of the state:
I live in a part of Michigan which has been hit very hard by the recession. Our few factories have gone, and the clothing stores have gone. No restaurants either. The few jobs here are very low-paid service jobs -- usually low-end health care -- with absolutely horrible hours, no benefits, and no safety. Encouraging large employers to create only low-paid, no-benefits jobs will send us father down into the swamp. We need some real jobs here, and we need them at living wages. Low wages work for NOBODY. Forcing the so-called "right to work" upon little rural areas like this is a disincentive to create ANY decent jobs here -- and will continue to send this county -- and all the Northern counties -- into hopeless, chronic poverty zones.
Several readers took the universalist view:
It doesn't matter if you're a Democrat or Republican, union member or not -- this bill is going to affect every single person in Michigan! Lower wages means more people on state aid. Which means you need more people working to pay taxes to pay for those who lost their jobs because they got fired for no reason with no union protection.
And this reader signed his letter "In Solidarity," although, as he says, he's never been part of a labor group:
I am not, nor have I ever been, a union member. However, this bill would affect me adversely. I once worked for a company that tried to unionize. The owner moved the entire manufacturing plant to Indiana.
If this bill passes, then I will probably never realize my dream of working in a union. My wages, stagnant for over a decade, may well go down, as there's nobody else -- especially the government -- who will fight for the working man.
'The Unions Have Become A Millstone': Readers In Favor Of Right-To-Work
One reader pointed out that the bill might be good for a certain kind of transplant:
For me, as an international student spending a fortune getting an American education, I get rejected from unionized companies simply because I am not a US citizen. This law means more jobs for me!
Another told us that unions aren't always a net positive:
I've worked in union facilities and in non-union facilities, so I have a better perspective than most. Freedom-to-work or right-to-work laws do not prohibit unions. Right-to-work laws give employees the right to decide whether or not to join the union. This makes the union officials more responsive to the individuals in the particular facility. Some studies have indicated that currently only abut 20% of the dues paid by employees go towards bargaining contracts. The rest goes towards union officials' salaries and political contributions. I must say that working in a non-union facility is much more enjoyable as everyone is pulling in the same direction in the non-union facilities.
Several readers expressed confidence that the bill would bring new jobs to the state:
Passage of this bill will correct a glaring hole in Michigan's attractiveness for new industry locating here. We have lost jobs numbering in the tens of thousands in the last decade, mostly foreign automakers. We lost them because the unions have become a millstone around the neck of Michigan's non-union workers, who are the majority by 75 percent or more.
And one reader said they hoped the bill could reverse the recent trend of locals leaving the mitten:
This bill could hopefully have a positive effect on me and the state. Far too many people have had their children and grandchildren leave Michigan in order to find employment. Families were broken up and separated. Michigan was the only state in the country to lose population during the last decade. Michigan also had the highest unemployment rate in the country [ed. note: between 2006 and 2009].