President Barack Obama told a union audience in Redford Township, Mich., Monday: “The so-called ‘right to work’ laws — they don’t have to do with economics, they have everything to do with politics. What they’re really talking about is giving you the right to work for less money.”
The president was right that right-to-work laws are directly linked to politics.
Of course, so are most laws.
But if right-to-work laws are about “giving you the right to work for less money,” don’t they also fairly fall under the heading of “economics”?
And when Gov. Rick Snyder of Michigan signed two right-to-work bills Tuesday, it was another fair indicator that Americans are still turning away from Big Labor in a big way.
After all, Michigan has voted for the Democratic nominee in the last six presidential elections — and is the home of the United Auto Workers union.
Opponents of those Michigan laws decried their passage by a “lame duck” legislature.
Gov. Snyder, however, is a Republican — and Republicans retained control on the Michigan House in last month’s election. They also will still control the Senate when the new session begins next month (no Senate seats were on the ballot this year).
And Michigan’s voters, by a resounding 58-42 percent margin, rejected a referendum last month that would have essentially prohibited right-to-work laws.
Michigan’s shift to right-to-work status, while a landmark event, continues a long-term national trend. A half century ago, more than a third of American private-sector workers belonged to unions. But according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 2011 (the latest year for which the data are available) overall union membership fell to 11.8 percent of the American workforce — with a mere 6.9 percent union membership in the private sector.
Indeed, labor’s last stronghold lies on government payrolls. Last year, the union-membership rate was 37 percent for public-sector workers in the U.S.
In fairness to the history of the labor movement, it helped achieve a remarkable rise in wages and benefits for not just union members but all workers over the last century.
Yet that climb eventually reached this turning point: Lots of working folks, both in and out of unions, realized that when labor costs rise so sharply as to put for-profit enterprises out of business, that increase can also put them out of jobs.
Many working people also correctly find being forced to pay union dues an unjust condition of employment — especially when much of that money is diverted to political candidates and causes that plenty of workers don’t want to support.
With the addition of Michigan, 24 states, including South Carolina, now have right-to-work laws. Organized labor, which retains major influence in the Democratic Party, understandably finds that an ominous trend.
But that’s no excuse for this warning from state Rep. Douglas Geiss on the floor of the Michigan House as its members prepared to cast right-to-work votes Tuesday: “We’re going to pass something that will undo 100 years of labor relations, and there will be blood. There will be repercussions.”
Some union protesters lived up to that incendiary language this week, stooping to thuggish behavior against right-to-work supporters outside Michigan’s Capitol in Lansing. Such bullying tactics will only accelerate labor’s long-term decline.
So will the continued economic gains of states that grant their residents the right to work without having to pay union dues.
Boeing officials said South Carolina’s largely non-union workforce was a key factor in their 2009 decision to build the 787 Dreamliner plant in North Charleston. The Obama administration’s National Labor Relations Board cited that statement as Boeing’s “intimidation” of a union in Washington state. The union’s lawsuit based on that absurd allegation has since been dropped.
Hey, throwing punches and knocking down a tent with people in it, as some of those union backers did this week in Lansing, is intimidation. Saying that a non-union workforce appeals to businesses is just stating the obvious.
Just as obvious: Unions are losing ground, even in their former bases of strength. And that shouldn’t be a surprise in a region known as “The Rust Belt.”
In this era of global economic competition, U.S. businesses simply can’t afford an exorbitant labor tab.
So sure, as the president said, politics drive right-to-work laws. But those politics are driven by economic reality.
And those politicians in Michigan deserve credit for facing it.