Right-to-work-for-less passes in Michigan

The Wall Street Journal’s owner and editors hate unions, so it is no surprise that the newspaper published an editorial on Tuesday gloating over Michigan’s enactment of “right-to-work” legislation to ban contracts between labor unions and employers that require all employees covered by the contract to pay union dues or their equivalent. The editorial is so full of untruths, half-truths and right-wing extremist ideology that a full response would wear out both author and reader. But let’s take a brief look at how the 1 percent defends this ugly attack on employee rights and economic security.

The heart of the editorial is the contention that right-to-work-for-less laws are good for workers, families and state economies, which it supports with various pseudo-scientific studies, including one by the Taxpayers Protection Alliance that—ludicrously—claims the typical Michigan family of four would have had annual income $54,224 greater in 2008 if Michigan had enacted a right-to-work-for-less law in 1977. In 2008, median income for a family of four was about $78,000, so the Journal is proposing that it would have been roughly $132,000! Curiously, only four states had median household income over $100,000 in 2008, and not one was right-to-work-for-less. 

It is far likelier that if Michigan had passed right-to-work-for-less back in 1977, and if it had weakened unions as much as it has elsewhere, the UAW would not have had the political strength to work with the Obama administration and save the auto industry during the Great Recession. The WSJ has attacked the auto recovery as a political pay-back to the UAW, but it has never thought through what would have happened if Obama had not intervened. Michigan, more than any other state, would have been devastated. It’s true that unemployment in Michigan is more than 9 percent today, but without the UAW’s political clout, the rate might have been 20 percent or more, with no prospect of recovery.

The Journal has a real credibility problem in the basic logic of its argument. If, as the editors insist, the impact of RTWFL is to increase labor costs, why would it work as a draw for outside investors? Furthermore, are we really supposed to believe that the Chamber of Commerce and other big corporate lobbies—that argue against the minimum wage, against living wages, against a right to sick leave, and for making it easier to ship jobs abroad—are devoting millions of dollars and hundreds of hours of staff time promoting RTWFL because they think it will increase employers’ labor costs?

The editorial cites Richard Vedder’s claim that from 1977 to 2008, per capita income grew at a faster rate in RTWFL states than non-RTWFL states. But Vedder and the WSJ failed to disclose that, while the overall average of the 22 RTWFL states was impressive—led by fast-growing states such as North Dakota and Virginia—the actual state-by-state numbers showed no relationship whatsoever between RTWFL laws and income growth. Four of the five fastest-growing states in the country were non-RTWFL states.

Vedder doesn’t sort out the role of federal spending, natural resources and energy development, or a host of other relevant factors in analyzing whether right-to-work-for-less laws had anything to do with growth in the states. Better controlled studies by EPI economists Heidi Shierholz and Elise Gould, and similar studies by researchers in Nevada, Maryland, California and Indiana conclude that right-to-work-for-less has no impact on job creation, but lowers the income of workers by $1,500 per year, on average, and makes it less likely that employers will provide health benefits or pensions.

The editorial blames unions for the decline of the U.S. auto and steel industries because they supposedly extracted “monopoly wages and benefits” the industries couldn’t afford. But unions didn’t cause the decline of those industries, which are highly unionized in Korea, Japan and Germany. The editorial makes no mention of global competition, or the fact that the non-union textile industry virtually disappeared from the U.S. over the last 30 years, the fact that the non-union computer industry moved all of its manufacturing off-shore, or that the 100 percent union professional sports leagues have thrived. It’s not analysis, it’s ideology.

The Journal knows that industries searching for higher and higher profits and lower and lower wages is the real issue, not the right of workers to get the benefits of a union contract without paying their fair share of its costs, which is all right-to-work-for-less actually does. By making it harder for the UAW and other unions to collect dues and pay for their collective bargaining and political work, businesses will have freer rein to weaken wage and hour laws, health and safety protections, Social Security, unemployment insurance and a host of other laws that improve the lives and provide security to workers and their families. Most of the people who will be hurt will be non-union workers and their families, since unions represent only 17 percent of Michigan’s workforce.

The idea that right-to-work-for-less is about employee freedom to choose is pure malarkey. The editorial claims the law saves employees from paying for political causes they don’t believe in, but the National Labor Relations Act already does that. The U.S. Supreme court has held that no employee can be compelled to join a union or pay anything to support political causes they don’t like. They have the right to opt out of dues spent on politics, and the federal government enforces that right.

All of us pay taxes to support the actions our local, state and federal governments take whether we like them or not. It’s the price we pay for freedom and self-government, just as union dues are the price workers with union contracts pay for industrial self-government and representation. If it were honest, the WSJ would condemn the right-to-work-for-less laws’ infringement on employees’ self-government and freedom to contract just as it would if the federal government prohibited the Chamber of Commerce from compelling its member companies to pay their membership fees and assessments.

Right–to-work-for-less laws are about nothing more than weakening unions, lowering wages, and freeing corporate America to turn back the clock on employee rights and regulation of labor standards.