How the Capitol exploded
Last week, Lansing's cold war got hot
Published: December 12, 2012
"What other business is there where goods or services are provided, but the government mandates that the decision to pay is optional?" asks Chris Michalakis, Metro Detroit AFL-CIO president.
It is a rhetorical question.
For the free-marketeers at places like the Mackinac Center for Public Policy — a Michigan nonprofit "think tank" that promotes conservative fiscal policies and is one of the state's leading proponents of RTW — there is a decided philosophical component to the debate. Their thinking, which has libertarian roots, is that people should be free to not support a union in any way if that's their preference.
"One of the classic arguments you hear unions say is that under federal law employees don't have to pay union dues," says Jack Spencer, a former reporter who now writes for Michigan Capitol Confidential, the Mackinac Center's news and information service.
However, even if they don't want to join the union, they do have to pay fees to cover the union's cost of negotiating contracts and providing other services.
"Those fees," Spencer says, "are the unions' bread and butter."
With RTW, workers at union shops are no longer compelled to contribute at all. Take away the forced payments, Spencer says, and the unions have a strong incentive to become what he describes as more "user-friendly."
"The idea is that unions will have to work a lot harder" because employees won't have to pay the unions anything unless the employees do so of their "own free choice."
"It makes unions more responsible," Spencer contends. "They have to persuade you that there is good reason to be contributing to them."
Given that members of the fiercely anti-union DeVos family (co-founders of Amway) provided about $200,000 in funding to the Mackinac Center from 2002 to 2009 (according to a report compiled by the Michigan Education Association) it is easy to see why many in the labor movement believe the think tank is really more concerned about looking out for corporate interests than it is in ensuring workers are well-represented at the bargaining table.
"The real goal of RTW," contends union leader Michalakis, "is to weaken leverage for workers and strengthen it for management."
Proponents of RTW, though — when not claiming it is intended to free beleaguered workers from nonexistent requirements that they belong to a union, or that they are interested in helping prompt unions to be more responsive to the needs of their members — insist that RTW laws are needed to promote economic prosperity.
Again, the claims are at best dubious.
What economic benefit?
Go searching on the Web for information about the economic impact of RTW laws and you will quickly begin to experience a sort of mental whiplash.
Read one study and your mind gets jerked to the right. Read another and it gets yanked to the left. Back and forth.
Look to determine whether RTW laws are an economic boon or bane and it quickly becomes apparent that much of the so-called "research" that's been produced is tailored to conform to the political leanings and philosophies of those doing the research, or the financial interests of those who are paying for it.
That's not just our opinion.
Hari Singh, an economics professor at Grand Valley State University's Seidman College of Business, reached a similar conclusion after evaluating the existing literature in a 2010 paper titled "Right to Work and Economic Impact: What It Means For Michigan".
In trying to answer the question of how much RTW laws affected the siting of new auto manufacturing plants, Singh noted:
"As always in economics, the question is simple but the answer is quite complicated. Most of the complications arise from two major factors: First, to whom do you ask the question? A think tank which is more towards the right (of the economics ideological spectrum) will have very different answers compared to an official of the UAW. Generally the more reasonable answer is probably somewhere in the middle, but one can swing more toward the right or left of this spectrum depending upon one's existing belief and political ideology. As is most often the case, where you stand (and what you say) depends upon where you sit. Due to these differences, when arguments and empirical results are presented by different persons or organizations, it is important to identify their ideological leanings."
Moreover, reaching a valid conclusion is complicated by the fact the RTW laws by themselves determine nothing.
"There are many things that can cause differences in employment and wages across states and regions," writes Singh. "What we can attribute solely to RTW really depends upon how well we control for all these other confounding factors. Generally, descriptive comparisons based on raw numbers don't indicate much because there are many factors influencing these variables."
Confounding the situation is the fact that those other variables can play a much more significant role in determining where businesses locate than whether or not a state has an RTW law in place.
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