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Witnessing History: The Passage of Michigan’s ‘Right-to-Work’ Law

December 12, 2012

Sometimes one has to seek out history; at others times, it unfolds before our eyes.  As my work brings me to downtown Lansing, Michigan almost daily, I was an eyewitness to the protests taking place at the Capitol steps in response to the Legislature’s lame-duck session debate and subsequent passage of  ‘right-to-work’ bills, signed into law hours later by the Governor.  What follows are my observations, made while coming into Lansing just after 7;00 a.m., and during the day, on break, at lunch, and upon leaving mid-afternoon.

Scene at Capitol and Ottawa Streets, lansing, Michigan, just after 7:00 a.m.

Scene at Capitol and Ottawa Streets, lansing, Michigan, just after 7:00 a.m.

The crowd was older, mostly Boomer, dressed casually and bundled up, as the morning weather was as bitter as the debate over the bills.  The paucity of younger people was noticeable in my very un-scientific sample.  Most of the protesters were Caucasian, along with a significant minority who were African-American.  They were spirited and intense, but no more so than one might expect at a U-M vs. MSU tailgate event.  The presence of vendors, such as a ‘Mr. Turkey’ stand selling food, strengthened the ‘tailgate’ feeling in the air.

Press reports of intermittent violence may or may not be true; I cannot say that I saw any signs of  lawlessness, on the part of pro- or anti-right-to-work demonstrators (the latter being the vast majority on-hand, judging by signage), or on the part of police, conspicuous as they were all around the Capitol.  All sides were as well-behaved as at any gathering of similar size (reports of 10,000 are common), though only the Tea Party rallies rival those put on by organized labor in my 14+ years working near the Capitol.

Crowds, tents and orange barrels in front of the State Capitol.

Crowds, tents and orange barrels in front of the State Capitol.

The bills are signed into law; while the courts will surely have opportunity to rule on these, they appear to be a done deal, at least for now.  (A referendum drive is also a possibility, as the repeal of Public Act 4, the most-recent ’emergency manager’ law, demonstrated last month.)  What remains to be seen is which side is right.  To this old economics teacher’s way of thinking, both sides may be able to claim vindication, assuming that the laws stand judicial and electoral scrutiny.  The unions argue that ‘right-to-work’ means lower wages, fewer benefits and less job security, as is the case in states where this type of law has long held sway. Advocates claim that more jobs will be created and that unemployment will trend lower over the long-term, as is also the case in ‘right-to-work’ states.  Putting aside for now rival explanations for the union/high wage vs. right-to-work/more jobs history of other states (such as the education of each state’s workforce, they value added by local manufactures, tax and regulatory climate, et cetera), one could imagine that, as wages trend lower, Michigan will become more attractive to new or expanding businesses, and that they will create jobs – at wages more in line with national or world-wide levels of compensation than is the case when a union can advocate effectively for a better deal for its’ members, even as that deal may raise the cost of labor to a point where fewer jobs are created.

Ottawa and Capitol Streets, mid-afternoon.

Ottawa and Capitol Streets, mid-afternoon.

One thing largely missing from the debate has been a discussion about the balance of power and what its’ loss portends for self-government.  In a society where labor exercises inordinate power, the economy can become uncompetitive due to high cost, restrictive work rules, et cetera.  Such may have been the case with pre-Thatcher England.  In a society where capital has an inordinate share of power, workers may feel as though they are living in a Dickensean world where their wages are subject to an ‘iron law’ that keeps them as low as possible while the government is the creature of the monied classes.  In either case, the social machinery is clearly out of whack.  REgardless of what one may think of unionism, unions serve as a check and balance (when they do their job) on large, corporate bodies with vast resources.  Thus, the question that should have been asked is, ‘How will these laws affect the balance of power, both economically and politically?’

Just as our government was intended to work as a system where each branch and level checked and balanced the others, so our economy, until the age of large, corporate enterprises gives way to another form of social/economic organization, may function best when each center of power is checked by a rival of roughly equal strength.

Only time will tell how Michigan’s experiment with ‘right-to-work’ will turn out.  Students of political economy will also be watching to see how it affects society beyond the negotiating table.

December 26, 2012 Postscript:  At about the time that I wrote this I received notice that I’d been selected to fill an unexpected board vacancy at the Michigan Association of Government Employees (MAGE),  the managers/professionals union for non-union classifications.  MAGE does not have collective bargaining rights, however, and is a forerunner of what unions may look like in a ‘right-to-work’ environment.  MAGE is voluntary; perhaps 20-25% of eligible employees are dues-paying members, yet whatever MAGE negotiates for non-union employees is applied to everyone, regardless of whether they pay dues or not.  I mention this in the interest of objectivity; however, as someone who supported the current Governor in both the primary and general election, I have a foot in both camps and intend to present my observations in the most neutral, non-partisan light possible.  That is in keeping with the mission of this blog, which is written from a teacher’s perspective, not from that of a civil servant or a partisan advocate.

  1. Thanks for linking to my story. Now that RTW is law, I hope that it is a success. However, as I mentioned, I expect that both sides had it partly right: We’ll see more jobs created, but at lower wage & benefit levels. (For those seeking work, this obviously would be a good thing, while workers covered by collective bargaining agreements may see some erosion of their compensation.)

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  1. » Michigan’s “Right to Work” law already working - Le·gal In·sur·rec·tion
  2. Citizen activism in Michigan, “right to work” laws, and more « Temple of Mut

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