Dec 17, 2007

Right to Work Push Designed to Bust Unions, Labor Says

Organized labor says the push to make Michigan a so-called Right to Work state by conservative groups and individuals from out of state is designed to end collective bargaining, drive wages down, kill unions and damage the middle class.

“This is a standard-of-living issue more than a labor issue,” said Brent Gillette, the national field director for the Michigan AFL-CIO. “They would take away the ability of trade unions to collective bargain and pool together to benefit the workers they represent.”

RTW bills are before both the Michigan House and Senate, but are stuck in committee. In the House, Rep. Jacob Hoogendyk, R-Kalamazoo, introduced House Bill 4454, and Rep. Kevin Elsenheimer, R-Bellaire, introduced HB 4455, both to make Michigan an RTW state. In the Senate, Sen. Nancy Cassis, R-Novi, introduced companion bills, Senate Bills 607 and 608.

But the big push may come in the form of a ballot initiative. To get the question on the ballot in front of voters, supporters of RTW have to collect the valid signatures of registered voters equal to 8 percent of the total number of votes cast for all candidates for governor in the last election. That comes out to 304,101 valid signatures of registered voters.

“It’s pretty easy to get something on the ballot in Michigan,” Gillette said. “It only takes half a million signatures, and they certainly have the money to do that.”

Gillette said labor expects collecting of signatures to start during the Jan. 15 presidential primary, when large groups of people will be out. In the meantime, Gillette said, unions are educating their members on the RTW issue.

Proponents of Right to Work claim the law would do away with the requirement that workers must be in a union to be employed at a union shop. However, federal law already protects workers who don't want to join a union to get or keep their jobs, and gives workers the right to opt out of a union. But they must still pay union dues. RTW would give them the option of not paying dues while still enjoying the benefits of being in a union.

Unions in RTW states are required by law to defend non-dues-paying members involved in a dispute or charged with a grievance at work, but even those employees do not have to contribute dues. Opponents of RTW say such a provision does not give workers more rights, but instead it weakens unions and their ability to bargain for improved benefits and working conditions, which they call the real intent of RTW. The union, by law, must represent all workers equally.

“This would allow an employee to opt out, for whatever reason,” Gillette said. “He can opt out but still benefit from all the hard work of union members. It’s a free-rider kind of situation.”

Some of those groups and individuals pushing RTW include the Michigan and U.S. chambers of commerce; the conservative National Right to Work Foundation; Grover Norquist of Americans for Tax Payer Reform and the anti-union Alliance for Worker Freedom; Wal-Mart and Holland Coors of the Coors beer dynasty. In Michigan the effort is being pushed by the conservative Mackinac Center for Public Policy, Michigan Senate Majority Leader Mike Bishop and Republican Oakland County Executive L. Brooks Patterson.

“The major push for Right to Work for less is from what we consider right-wing groups,” Gillette said. "It would be a huge feather in their cap to turn Michigan. They want to use the fear and anxiety over the Michigan economy to accomplish it.”

Gillette said Oklahoma is the latest of 22 states that have adopted RTW laws, and it lost more than 22,000 manufacturing jobs after RTW took effect. North Carolina, an RTW state with the smallest percentage of unionized workers in the country, has lost more manufacturing jobs than Michigan.

Workers in RTW states make an average of $5,900 less in annual salary, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. In addition, the rate of workplace deaths is 41 percent higher in RTW states, according to the bureau, and 20 percent more workers in RTW states go without health insurance.

Gillette said the fatalities clearly demonstrate unions do much more than just improve wages, benefits and the standard of living. They train both union and nonunion workers, provide professional standards, ensure worker safety and even retrain workers whose jobs are outsourced.

“A lot of those functions would be lost if the free-riders get their way,” he said.

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