In “The First Thing Michigan Democrats Should Do With Their New Power” at The New Republic, Steven Greenhouse, senior fellow at the Century Foundation and author of Beaten Down, Worked Up: The Past, Present, and Future of American Labor, writes:
Now that Democrats in Michigan have won control of the governor’s mansion and both houses of the state legislature for the first time in nearly four decades, they have an excellent opportunity to do what no state legislature in the U.S. has done in over a half-century: repeal a right-to-work law.
Such laws are deliberately anti-union and divisive. They let workers opt out of paying any dues or fees to their union while still enjoying the benefits their union provides them: winning better pay and benefits and fighting to protect them if they’re fired. Pushed by corporations and billionaire donors, Republican lawmakers have enacted these laws in state after state because they weaken labor unions by sapping their treasuries and undercutting their power—both in the workplace and in politics.
In an era when Republicans have repeatedly prevented Congress from enacting pro-union legislation like the Protecting the Right Organize Act, the Michigan legislature—as soon as Democrats take control in January—will be in position to take a momentous step to strengthen unions. Repealing right-to-work in Michigan would be a big symbolic and substantive shot in the arm for labor across the U.S. It would also be a powerful way for Governor Gretchen Whitmer to prove her labor bona fides if she runs for president one day.
Greenhouse notes that “One study found that the portion of workers in right-to-work states who opt out of paying union dues or fees ranged from 9 percent in Georgia to as high as 27 percent in Louisiana, 31 percent in Florida, and 39 percent in South Dakota. This translates into a sharp decline in dues payments, and that weakens union treasuries and hampers unions’ ability to do organizing and other work.”
As for the political consequences of unions, Greenhouse adds, “In a recent study, three scholars found that “when right-to-work laws are in place, Democrats up and down the ballot do worse.” They concluded that in “right-to-work counties,” Democrats perform about 3.5 percentage points worse in presidential elections, with “similar effects in Senate, House, and Gubernatorial races, as well as on state legislative control.” That study also found a 2 percent drop in voter turnout in “right-to-work counties.” Let’s not forget that in 2016, Hillary Clinton lost Wisconsin and Michigan by less than 1 percent of the vote. Further,
Conservative operatives know that once a state passes right-to-work and other anti-union measures, it’s easier for Republicans to enact other conservative legislation, like restricting voting rights, cutting Medicaid, and giving tax breaks to corporations and the rich. In his book State Capture: How Conservative Activists, Big Business, and Wealthy Donors Reshaped the American States—and the Nation, Alexander Hertel-Fernandez wrote, “State policy moves sharply to the right after the passage of anti-union right-to-work laws—with real consequences for ordinary Americans on issues like minimum wage and labor market standards.”
With 71 percent of all Americans, including 56 percent of Republicans, voicing approval of unions in an August Gallup poll, it is clear that red state legislatures—pushed by corporations and wealthy donors—are often far more anti-union than the public at large. In 2018, Missourians voted 67 to 33 percent to repeal a year-old right-to-work law enacted by the state legislature.
Unions are not only good for American workers; They are also essential for building working Democratic majorities in federal, state and local legislative bodies.