The Building Tradesman Newspaper

Friday, December 10, 2010

Let’s add quality of life issues to right-to-work debate, argues tinknocker

By The Building Tradesman

Do statewide right-to-work laws lower quality of life for residents? Some numbers unearthed by a tinknocker point to “yes.”

Sheet Metal Workers Local 80 member Dennis Marentette, who has a Master’s Degree in Training and Development, wrote a thesis paper for his local union organizer on the potential impact of a right-to-work law on Michigan.

His paper is even more relevant following the results of the 2010 election, which gave Republicans complete control of all power levers in the state: the Michigan House, Senate and Governor’s office, attorney general and secretary of state, as well as a GOP majority on the state Supreme Court.

It is widely anticipated that state Republicans – pushed farther to the right by the Tea Party – will be emboldened to push for a right-to-work law in Michigan. Two years ago, the state Republican Party approved as part of their platform a resolution to make Michigan a right-to-work state. Governor-elect Rick Snyder has said he’s not interested in going down that path, but that isn’t the same as saying “no.”

Under right-to-work laws, workers in a union shop can choose not to pay union dues – yet can still remain on the job and enjoy the benefits of union membership. Such a two-tiered set-up usually guts the clout of unions and eventually leads to their demise.

There are currently 22 right-to-work states in the U.S. Oklahoma was the most recent state to adopt a RTW law, in 2001. The vast majority of state RTW laws were adopted in the 1960s and 1970s.

Marentette’s paper compared worker social and economic issues concerning housing, poverty levels, education and union density between Michigan and southern RTW states of Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Florida, Louisiana, Mississippi, Tennessee, Texas. He chose those states for comparison because they’re often used as examples of better places to do business than Michigan or other non-RTW states. He chose also Nevada because it has certain similarities to Michigan – including jobless numbers that are even worse than Michigan’s. Information was gleaned from the U.S. Census Bureau, as well as Union Stats/Georgia State University and Trinity University for the years 2006-2008.

It’s important to note that during those years, Michigan had already been wallowing in its own recession for several years, while the rest of the nation was about to enter the Great Recession.

Some highlights of Marentette’s paper:

*Michigan – still one of the nation’s most heavily unionized states – ranked third behind Nevada and Georgia in median income among the RTW states mentioned above during the years studied.

*The percentage of people living below the poverty level was “almost the inverse to union density in the rankings of these states,” Marentette wrote. To illustrate: Mississippi has the lowest union density in the nation, but also leads the nation with 21 percent of its population below the poverty line. Their poverty rate is 7 percent higher than Michigan’s and 10 percent greater than Nevada’s.

*Senior citizens supporting young family members can be a huge drag on their quality of life in retirement years. The numbers showed that in Michigan, 42.6 percent of children were supported by grandparents. That’s slightly above the 40.6 percent national average. But our state was behind only Nevada and Florida compared to the others on Marentette’s list of right-to-work states, and well behind Arkansas (59.5 percent), Mississippi (59.1 percent) and Alabama (56.2 percent).

*Do statewide right-to-work laws act as a magnet for Fortune 500 companies? Hardly, the paper found. Texas had 46 Fortune 500 companies located within its state lines. Michigan was next with 26, followed by Georgia (15) and Florida (12). All the other right-to-work states that were studied had Fortune 500 companies numbering in the single digits.

*In Michigan, 87.6 percent of high schoolers got their diploma – which is three points above the national average. That beats every RTW state examined by Marentette, with Florida next (84.9 percent) and Mississippi last (78 percent).

“It is believed by many,” Marentette said, “that RTW states have a competitive advantage over non-RTW states because of the reduced number of organized/unionized workers. They reflect on the federal unemployment figures as evidence that high union density leads to high unemployment. While the unemployment figures are certainly true, other aspects of society that should be taken into consideration are not discussed.

“The unionized worker in Michigan believes that income and fringe benefits are important to maintaining a culture consistent with middle class values of raising a family in a safe and secure environment and every generation becoming more successful than the last.

“RTW legislation,” he continued, “will reduce the effectiveness of collective bargaining by not requiring workers to join a union, which has elevated the worker to middle class stature. Watering down the unionized work force through RTW laws, wages and benefits will decrease opportunities for the worker to effectively provide his family with a better standard of living.”