If battered industrial unions learn to convince skeptical workers of their value, it might help them rebuild.
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.
Those numbers sound bad. But they're not exactly death sentences. In 2011, 17.5 percent of Michigan workers belonged to a union, compared to about 11.8 percent nationwide, according to the Bureau of Labor statistics. That comes out to 671,000 total employees on the state's union rolls. A one-tenth drop in that tally would knock it down to 604,000, and trim the overall rate by about 2 percentage points.
In short, a right-to-work law alone isn't going to put the UAW out of business.
UNIONS THAT WORK
It might, however, force big industrial unions to meaningfully grapple with their futures. The reality is that organized labor has been on the decline for reasons that are much bigger than the rules governing whether or not non-members have to pay administrative fees. Automation and offshoring have slashed the number of workers needed on assembly lines in any given factory. Unions have repeatedly failed to crack retail and much of the services industries. Meanwhile, they've developed a national image problem. The Pew Research Center reports that since 2007, public approval for unions has plummeted, so that less than half the country now has a favorable opinion of them. In Michigan this past election cycle, labor tried and failed to pass a constitutional amendment protecting the right to collective bargaining. Perhaps that shouldn't be a surprise: according to the Economic Policy Institute, just one in five of the state's manufacturing workers were even covered by a collective bargaining agreement, down from nearly half in 1983. The labor movement has seen better days there, just like everywhere else.
If unions are going to have any chance of reversing course -- and it's not obvious they can at this point -- they'll need to win back the public and break into markets where they've been effectively shut out. As Reuters reported last year, even the UAW has concluded that its long-term financial future may depend on its ability to organize foreign auto makers such as Toyota that mostly operate factories in right-to-work states. Although the union already bargains on behalf of factory employees in right-to-work Texas, practicing the act of selling itself to workers year in and year out might strengthen it in the long term.
Some, such as Rich Yeselson at The American Prospect, are worried that unions will fold before they'll learn to adapt. "Most local unions today are logistically and, often, intellectually, atrophied," he writes. As a result, they rely on the fact that workers are automatically required to pay union fees "just to function at a reasonably high level. The medicine may make them weaker, but to take them off it immediately could be fatal."
But the reality is that local unions won't be going cold turkey. The effects of right-to-work laws appear to unfold gradually and at the margins. Their dues paying members won't vanish overnight. And if the spread of these statutes ultimately forces unions to make the case for themselves more effectively, it may go some ways toward restoring the public's decayed trust in them.
What's transpired in Michigan is a political defeat for organized labor. But a knockout punch, it is not. If it rouses more unions out of their comfort zone and forces them to adapt themselves to the world we now live in, it may well turn out to be a blessing in disguise.