Detroit — Top Democrats competing for the party’s presidential nomination are courting union voters with plans to boost bargaining rights and eliminate so-called right-to-work laws adopted in Michigan and other states.

South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg’s “new rising tide” proposal calls for an end to right-to-works laws and endorses legislation that would allow employment contracts requiring workers to pay bargaining fees to unions even if they are not members.

Right-to-work laws make “states look good in CEO surveys, but quality of life actually goes down,” Buttigieg argued two weeks ago in Detroit, where he marched with union members downtown after participating in the second Democratic presidential debate.

“So there are steps that we can take at the federal level to get states to move back to a reality where they’re supporting workers instead of suppressing the ability to organize.”

Democrats are seeking to re-energize the labor movement after 2016 nominee Hillary Clinton reportedly won union households by the party's smallest general election margin since 1984. 

Unions had backed Clinton, but two with Michigan roots — the United Auto Workers and the International Brotherhood of Teamsters — waited until after she had effectively locked up the nomination over U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont. Leadership-level endorsement decisions alienated some rank-and-file members who found appeal in Republican President Donald Trump's blue-collar rhetoric.

Michigan’s right-to-work law, which took effect in late March 2013, bans contracts that require workers to pay membership dues or bargaining fees as a condition of employment. Republican former Gov. Rick Snyder signed the law in late 2012, a once unthinkable move in a union-heavy state known as the birthplace of the modern labor movement.

Conservatives contend the law has helped spur Michigan’s ongoing economic growth while ensuring personal freedom for workers who don’t want to support a union they are not members of.

But Buttigieg argues that right-to-work laws hurt workers by banning union security in the collective bargaining process — and he’s not alone.

Sanders, who won Michigan’s Democratic primary in 2016, is lead sponsor on legislation that would preempt “right-to-work for less laws.” Co-sponsors include fellow presidential hopeful U.S. Sens. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, Kamala Harris of California, Kirsten Gillibrand of New York and Cory Booker of New Jersey.

Sanders’ proposal would also make it easier for worker to form unions by allowing the National Labor Relations Board to certify a bargaining unit if a majority of eligible workers sign authorization cards. And it would require companies to begin negotiating within 10 days after union certification.

Buttigieg supports federal legislation known as the Protecting the Right to Organize Act that would effectively undermine right-to-work laws by allowing unions to contract for “fair share” fees to cover the cost of collective bargaining.

The legislation would also allow workers to sue employers who illegally interfere with unionizing efforts and allow the National Labor Relations Board to impose fines on employers who fire workers for trying to unionize or break other labor laws.

Step back for economy?

Michigan is one of 28 states — including Buttigieg’s home of Indiana — that have right-to-work laws.

Trump supports state-level right-to-work laws, and U.S. Sen. Rand Paul, R-Kentucky, has said the president assured him he would sign a national right-to-work law if it reached his desk, which is unlikely given Democratic control of the House.

Joe Biden, the front runner for the Democratic nomination to take on Trump, fought what he called national right-to-work “for less” legislation as vice president.

Republicans argue that eliminating state-level laws would be a step back for the economy. 

“I think forcing people to be part of a union to work — it's failed in Michigan, and we are part of the hotbed of union leadership,” Michigan Republican Party Chairwoman Laura Cox said in Detroit. “That doesn't work in Michigan, and we’ve moved on.”

Because Michigan’s right-to-work law is six years old, there is not much independent research on its effects, said Dale Belman, a labor relations professor at Michigan State University.

But nationwide, “right-to-work results in lower wages for blue-collar and lower-white-collar workers, higher profits for firms and a decline in political participation (by unions),” he said. “It clearly acts to weaken some unions.”

The impact of repealing prevailing wage in states like Michigan would be muted by a 2018 decision by the U.S. Supreme Court, which struck down public-sector agreements requiring non-members to pay union fees.

“In the private sector, what would happen is unions would charge fair share collective bargaining payments to individuals who decline to join,” Belman said. “And it would probably make organizing somewhat easier in some locations.”

Politically, unions are “an important organizing force for Democrats,” Belman said, so repealing right-to-work laws “would tend to benefit the Democrats.”

Untangling right-to-work's impact

Republicans predicted major benefits from Michigan’s right-to-work law, but it’s difficult to untangle the impact from data that points to larger economic trends. 

Michigan was hit earlier, harder and longer by the Great Recession than most states. The economy began growing again in 2010 and has continued on an upward trajectory over the past nine years.

The state was growing jobs before the right-to-work law took effect in 2013, and it has continued to do so. Median household incomes rose more than 6% between 2014 and 2017, but that was slower than the national rate of 8%. Michigan union membership has declined since the 2013 law, but it was already declining.

Most research on right-to-work laws has attempted to compare states with or without the statutes.

Buttigieg’s plan cites a 2015 analysis from the Economic Policy Institute, a left-leaning think tank whose board is filled with union leaders, that found wages in right-to-work states were 3.1% lower than for similarly situated workers in other states.

“If you look at what it’s done in my state, you look at what it’s done in a lot of states, it essentially accelerates a race to the bottom and makes workers worse off,” Buttigieg said.

But the free-market-oriented Mackinac Center for Public Policy analyzed data from 1947 through 2011 and found states with right-to-work laws experienced average personal incomes grow by an extra 0.08 percentage points while their populations grew an extra 0.05 points.

“That might not sound like much, but when you compare it to the difference in growth rates between states with right-to-work and states without, over time that’s huge,” said Michael LaFaive, senior director of the center's Morey Fiscal Policy Initiative.

Michigan added an average of 78,000 jobs in the three years prior to the right-to-work law taking effect in late March 2013, and then added an average of 60,000 jobs over the next six years, according to data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

The effect of Michigan’s law is “likely very positive, but it may still be too early to measure the impact empirically,” LaFaive said

Scrapping it “would be extremely harmful from an economic perspective, and of course it would limit the individual liberty of workers who would like to have a job and not necessarily belong to the union associated with it or be forced to support them," he predicted.

The federal data shows that union members — and other employees covered by union-bargained contracts — do usually earn more than non-union workers, but any number of factors could contribute to the discrepancy.

In 2018, full-time union workers across the country earned a median rate of $1,051 a week, while non-union workers earned $860, according to survey data published by the federal bureau. In manufacturing, the median union worker earned $992 a week last year, compared with $908 for a non-union worker.

Nationally, union membership has climbed from 12.9 million in 2008 to 14.1 million in 2018, a roughly 8% increase. But federal data shows Michigan union membership declined over that same span, falling from 771,000 in 2008 to 625,000 in 2018, or about 19%.

Michigan’s right-to-work law likely had a larger impact on public-sector union membership and private-sector unions where membership bonds are not overly strong, Belman said.

But in areas like auto manufacturing and construction, it likely had little impact on membership numbers, he added. “For any number of reasons, it just wouldn’t be socially acceptable” in some fields to say “I’m not going to pay my union dues anymore," Belman said.

Federal data shows Michigan's union rate decline began before the right-to-work law took effect in 2013. Roughly 18.8% of state workers were unionized in 2008, a figure that had fallen to 16.6% by 2012 and 14.5% in 2018.

Over the past decade, the annual percentage of Michigan workers in or represented by a union increased three times: in 2011, 2015 and 2017. Rates dropped in the each of the other seven years.

Detroit News Staff Writer Beth LeBlanc contributed.

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