Right to Work Won't Doom Michigan's Unions—It Might Even Save Them

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If battered industrial unions learn to convince skeptical workers of their value, it might help them rebuild. 

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(Reuters)

At this point, you might be under the impression that labor unions are about to become an endangered species in Michigan, now that it has become the 24th state to pass a right-to-work law.

Whether it was the the Associated Press calling the statute a "devastating and once-unthinkable defeat," or the New York Times reporting that it would "substantially" diminish labor's clout in the state, the consensus yesterday seemed to be that the statute amounted to an unprecedented blow for the union movement, both locally and nationally. 

And on an emotional level, that may be true. Labor organizations had already lost stinging battles against anti-union measures in Wisconsin and Indiana, but up until this month, Michigan had appeared to be a safe haven -- a big, rusty firewall. It is one of the most heavily unionized states in the country and the home of the United Auto Workers, perhaps the single most influential union of the 20th century. With the events of the last few days, however, it's now evident that organized labor has fallen so low that it can't even win a battle on its own turf.

Still, the situation isn't as bad as the media coverage has made it out to be. While there is evidence that right-to-work laws do weaken unions, their effect is limited. And precisely because this turn of events is such an awful reflection of labor's public standing, it might also turn into a much-needed wake-up call for its activists.

RIGHT-TO- ... WHAT, EXACTLY?

Right-to-work laws are not, in fact, really about the right to work.

Rather, they're mostly aimed at curbing unions by sapping their finances. Under federal law, employees cannot be forced to join a union against their will. But because unions are required to represent everyone in the workplaces they organize, they are permitted to negotiate contracts that require non-members to pay fees covering the basic costs of the services the unions provide. Right-to-work states ban those sorts of agreements, which means that no worker ever has to pay a cent to a union, even if it represents them at the collective bargaining table.

This creates an obvious problem for labor organizers: free-riders. If a worker can get most of the benefits of union representation for no charge, they don't have a whole lot of incentive to sign up and pay dues. The fewer fees they collect, the less resources unions have to fund their operations and their political activism. The fewer members they have, the harder it is to orchestrate a strike, and the less leverage they have with employers. In theory.

In practice, it's not clear how badly right-to-work laws hamper unions. Early on, it wasn't obvious they had any effect at all. Rather, the best research suggested that right-to-work statutes were mostly a symptom of anti-union attitudes in states where very few workers were likely to organize in the first place. In a 1985 review of the literature, economists Robert Newman and William Moore concluded that the impacts of right-to-work laws were likely "more symbolic than real." 

Since then, prevailing opinion has changed, and researchers tend to agree that right-to-work laws do have a modest impact. In 1998, Moore flipped his own stance, concluding that the balance of new research suggested they did create a free-riding problem and reduced union membership in states by 5-to-8 percent.  One influential study authored by economist David Ellwood -- now the Dean of Harvard's Kennedy School -- and lawyer Glenn Fine, suggested that the laws cut new organizing by almost half in the first five years after they passed, and by almost a third over the next five years, leading to a potentially permanent 5-to-10 percent drop in union rolls. That would save 1-to-3 percentage points off the unionization rate in most states. More recently, economists Ozkan Eren and I. Serkan Ozbekilek concluded that Oklahoma's right-to-work law, passed in 2001, caused union membership rates to fall 13.8 percent more than they would have otherwise, or about 1 percentage point. 

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Jordan Weissmann is a senior associate editor at The Atlantic.

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