Freedom Wins in Michigan

Dec 11, 2012

Union protesters outside the Michigan State Capitol in Lansing. Photographer: Jeff Kowalsky/Bloomberg.

The Michigan legislature today passed legislation that gives workers the freedom to choose whether or not to join or financially support a union, rather than having that choice forced upon them in order to keep or get a job.  This is a landmark development that comes in the wake of last month’s failed Proposition 2, a ballot initiative that would have enshrined the right to collective bargaining in the Michigan constitution. 

After the initial bills passed last Thursday, Governor Richard Snyder indicated that he would sign the legislation as soon as it reached his desk.  This would make Michigan the country’s 24th freedom-to-work state; it would also be the second state to pass this legislation in just the past year and the second state in the once solidly unionized industrial Midwest to do so. 

Given Michigan’s relatively high union density rate — 17.5% — and its long association with organized labor, the new law is sending shock waves through the labor movement.  Unions declared an all-out war to stop the legislation from passing, and thousands of union members donned symbolic red shirts and flocked to the state capitol this morning for angry protests as lawmakers debated.  In addition, in an apparently unannounced walkout, hundreds of Michigan teachers abandoned their classrooms and students to join the protestors, prompting some school districts to close for the day (Michigan has considered, but not passed, legislation increasing penalties for illegal public sector work stoppages). 

Meanwhile, members of Michigan’s congressional delegation reportedly tried to intervene by meeting with Gov. Snyder in a last-ditch attempt to convince him to veto the bill.  Barring an outright veto, the delegation encouraged the governor to use his line-item veto power to strike the part of the law that includes an appropriation, the inclusion of which makes the entire measure ineligible for an immediate ballot referendum. 

Perhaps the biggest headline came from President Obama’s personal visit to Michigan on Monday, during which he lambasted any attempt to pass a freedom-to-work law.  Adopting the hackneyed language of labor unions, he said the objective of the law was to give people a “right to work for less money,” a line that blithely ignores the many reasons why freedom-to-work laws are desirable, both from an individual worker’s perspective as well as from an economic standpoint.

A point that seems to be missing from the vociferous denunciations of the legislation by opponents in the Michigan is that freedom-to-work does nothing to prevent collective bargaining.  Unions still have all the rights guaranteed under federal and state labor law save for one — the power to force workers to pay dues or be fired.  Instead, workers now have the freedom to choose for themselves.  Labor unions fear that freedom, because it puts at risk dues money they could collect and spend on politics regardless of their members’ opinions.  

More importantly, substantial evidence supports the notion that giving workers a choice is good for not just for them but also for the overall economic climate.  With the average unemployment rate in freedom-to-work states 10% lower than in forced unionism states and other indices pointing to the positive impact of freedom-to-work laws, the legislature and governor in Michigan have decided to take another step toward restoring their state’s competitiveness.  And, after many years of declining economic conditions, Michigan’s businesses and workers alike have something to celebrate.

Crossposted from the Workforce Freedom Initiative's blog.

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