May 1 was celebrated worldwide as International Workers Day. Below are some thoughts on recent changes to union laws in Michigan, the historic home of the American labor movement...
Last December, a strange thing happened. My home state of Michigan became right-to-work. Gov. Rick Snyder and his fellow Republicans enacted the law in the lame-duck session amid a storm of controversy. Union protestors packed the lawns and halls of the Capitol Building, just blocks from my old house in Lansing. I wasn't really sure what to make of it.
At the time, I didn't know anything about right-to-work. I had heard that it makes unions weaker, which made me apprehensive. I'm a supporter of unions, generally speaking. They brought us the weekend, the lunch break, the minimum wage. All good things, as far as I'm concerned.
But as I listened to Snyder explain why he was supporting right-to-work, I couldn't really see anything objectionable about it. The case he made for the policy sounded completely reasonable. According to Snyder, right-to-work wasn't meant to weaken unions at all.
"It's about being pro-worker," he said in a YouTube video. "It's about hard-working Michiganders having the freedom to choose who they associate with."
As I researched the issue myself, I found that Snyder was echoing an argument commonly made by libertarians and free-market activists. They say that right-to-work helps ordinary people by giving them the freedom to decide whether to participate in the union at their workplace. The idea is that workers who don't want to join shouldn't be forced to pay dues.
The argument sounded pretty sensible to me, but I was still a little suspicious. Snyder is a former businessman who has aggressively promoted a pro-business agenda. Although the governor maintained that he was changing union rules for the benefit of workers, it was hard to believe that right-to-work wasn't at least somewhat for the benefit of corporations.
Additionally, I discovered that it's a bit of an oversimplification to say right-to-work gave people the freedom to make their own decisions about union membership. Even before right-to-work, all Michiganders could legally refuse to join the union at the shop or hospital or school where they were employed. No one was required to pay union dues. Sometimes workers would have to pay a fee to cover the costs of the representatives who advocated on their behalf for better wages, benefits and working conditions. The difference under right-to-work is that people can now opt out of the representation fee, as well as the union dues.
That's a pretty minor change to existing policy. Despite his talk of freedom, it's not like Snyder liberated the common man from abusive conditions. Perhaps some workers felt like it wasn't fair that they had to pay the representation fee, but I wouldn't exactly say that they were being oppressed.
After all, there are all kinds of other conditions that people must accept when they are hired at a new place. Sometimes employers require everyone on the payroll to contribute to the company's health care plan, even if one employee would rather forgo the benefits and keep the cash. Some workplaces have special parking spaces for executives that no one else is allowed to use. Snyder said right-to-work gave workers a choice, but the law didn't give them the right to choose their own health insurance or park in the boss's spot. It only affected unions.
The more I thought about it, the less convincing I found this "pro-worker" argument. The logic of it seemed intentionally misleading. It doesn't make sense to concentrate entirely on changing the internal dynamics of unions while denying that those changes will impact what unions actually do in the real world.
"This is about the relationship between a union and workers, not about employers and unions, not about collective bargaining," Snyder said in a Fox News interview. "This is solely focused on their relationship."
That's kind of like saying that a sledgehammer is solely focused on the relationship between the bricks and the mortar, not with knocking down the wall.
Every unionized company has a two-sided structure. Unions represent the workers and advocate for higher wages. Managers represent investors and advocate for higher returns. Negotiations between the two can be competitive. Anything that weakens one side will give the other side an advantage.
What if right-to-work's narrow definition of freedom were applied to a company's investors instead of its workers? Imagine a law that made it much easier for someone who owns stock in the a company to win a lawsuit against the CEO every time the stock's price went down. Let's call it a "right-to-invest" law. It sounds like a good idea because stockholders would have more freedom to make sure they got the most of out of their investment. But the law would create a lot of trouble inside corporations. Executives would constantly be fending off lawsuits when their time would be better spent working on strategies to increase profits overall.
Unions face the same basic problem under right-to-work. They have to devote too much energy to making sure individual members don't withdraw support, rather than figuring out how to secure salary and benefit increases for everyone. A right-to-invest law would be unfair to corporate managers in the same way right-to-work is unfair to unions.
I have no idea why Snyder decided to pursue right-to-work, especially when he had previously said it wasn't on his agenda. It's possible that he truly believed the law would help workers. But as a former business owner, he should have known better. Snyder has no doubt had employees ask him for a raise many times before. He's familiar with salary negotiations. That should have given him insight into why the law is not "pro-worker."
It's also possible that the governor knew that his argument for right-to-work was misleading. Perhaps he opposes organized labor on principle. He wouldn't be alone. There are many conservatives in Michigan who want to eliminate unions entirely. But if Gov. Snyder is one of them, he should have the courage to say so.