(Susan H. Bitensky, Michigan State University College of Law)
On Dec. 11, 2012, Michigan became the 24th state to enact so-called “right to work” (RTW) laws. Though elsewhere these laws are not a new phenomenon, it was nevertheless shocking when Michigan took the plunge. Michigan, after all, is the birthplace of the United Auto Workers, has provided the backdrop for many historically significant labor struggles and, until Dec. 11, has stood as a bastion of unionization in a country that has seen organized labor dwindle to 11.8 percent of the workforce.
That RTW could happen in Michigan may tell us something dire about the future of the American dream. Regardless of whether the latter was merely a bill of goods before, Michigan’s RTW statutes now surely reduce that vision to cruel myth. The demotion is assured by the fact that RTW laws severely weaken labor unions, the very institutions created and controlled by workers to improve their economic circumstances. As such, unions are uniquely situated to make rank-and-file dreams a sometime reality. If unions are to be weakened in Michigan, then where will they be strong?
So, what is this law that puts unions and their constituencies into such bleak decline? Despite the name, RTW enactments do not give anyone a right to work that he or she would otherwise not have. A RTW law, instead, permits workers in an organized bargaining unit to refuse to join the union and refuse to pay union dues while still enjoying all the benefits of union representation. Indeed, the union remains legally bound to fairly represent all employees in the unit, whether they pay dues or not. Though this arrangement is unjust in more ways than one, the focus of this article is on the institutional damage RTW statutes wreak upon unions primarily by depriving them of funds. With less funding, of course, unions are less able to organize, negotiate for and otherwise represent employees.
Yet, the US economy has long been structured so that, in all but the coziest of “mom and pop” businesses, employers possess massive power (subject to statutes setting only minimal protections for workers) to dictate the terms and conditions of employment to unorganized workers. This extreme imbalance is caused not only by the privileged position of capital in our society, but also by the circumstance that, when employees have no union, each employee must fend for himself or herself in dealing with the employer. Visualize, for example, a lone worker asking the likes of Boeing or Exxon Mobil for a raise, and the problem becomes clear.
It is this gargantuan gap in bargaining power between worker and boss that makes robust labor unions a moral imperative. Statistics show that, where RTW statutes exist, working people across the enacting state suffer serious adverse economic consequences, including:
- The average worker in RTW states earns $1,540 less annually than workers in non-RTW states.
- Poverty rates are higher in RTW states than in other states.
- People in RTW states are less likely to have health insurance than their counterparts elsewhere.
- RTW states have a workplace mortality rate at a whopping 36 percent higher than in non-RTW states.
While the foregoing data applies to state populations in general, studies indicate that RTW statutes are also antithetical to children’s needs in particular. For example, in RTW states:
- infant mortality rates are 15 percent higher than in other states;
- 10.8 percent of children have no health insurance compared to 7.5 percent of children elsewhere;
- 21.5 percent of children live in poverty while the rate for child poverty is 18.1 percent in other states; and,
- $3,392 less per student is expended on elementary and secondary education than is spent in the rest of the country. Thus, should newborns in RTW states survive past infancy, their normal physical and intellectual development are at increased risk.
In sum, RTW regimes set in motion a relentless downward spiral: RTW laws lead to weaker unions, and weaker unions lead to worsening economic conditions for those who can least afford it. Michigan, regardless of its pro-union traditions and culture, is now headed into that vortex.
It is probably true that unions are rarely in a position to act as a full counterweight to corporate power. But, if RTW laws were taken out of the mix, unions would retain the means to make the economic playing field, if not a field of dreams, then at least somewhat more level. Given the wildly asymmetrical distortion of power and wealth in the US, that is not a lot to ask.
Susan H. Bitensky is a Professor of Law and Director of the Center for Human Rights of Women and Children at Michigan State University College of Law. This column is from JURIST Academic Commentary, Jan. 22, 2013).