In right-to-work era, unions must add more value

The Detroit News

Union membership is declining. In fact, it's at an all-time low nationwide. And numbers dropped significantly in Michigan last year — the first full year the state was right to work. Rather than just fight against these trends, unions should devote themselves to offering their members better services.

Labor advocates look at the 2014 trends, released last week by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, and say this was the intent when a Republican Legislature passed right to work in late 2012.

But intent aside, the new law, making Michigan the 24th state to become right to work, doesn't do anything to bar employees from joining a union or staying in one. It just gives them a choice to leave and still hold on to their jobs.

If members are leaving, it may speak more to the quality of union services than it does the law itself.

And they are leaving. The membership decline in Michigan last year outpaced the national drop.

The labor bureau reported that the percentage of unionized workers nationwide fell to 11.1 percent in 2014 from 11.3 percent in 2013, which is the lowest level since before the Great Depression.

In Michigan, membership fell to 14.5 percent from 16.3 percent — a loss of 48,000 union members. It was the third largest drop in the nation.

The long-term impact of right to work in Michigan is a ways off, thanks to labor contracts that were extended years into the future prior to the law taking effect in March 2013. But when the United Auto Workers contracts expire later this year, it will open the door for UAW members to leave as well.

"Right to work still has not kicked in for many Michigan workers, most notably auto workers," F. Vincent Vernuccio, director of labor policy at the Mackinac Center, told The Detroit News. "As the contracts with the Big Three expire later this fall, tens of thousands of UAW autoworkers will be eligible for right to work."

Teachers unions in Michigan haven't been pleased with members who decide to opt out of the union. The Michigan Education Association — the state's largest teachers union with more than 100,000 members — lost around 1,500 teachers in 2013 and 15,000 last year as more contracts become subject to the law.

And the American Federation of Teachers-Michigan lost 8 percent of its teachers in 2013.

It will take unions time to adjust. Think of unions in business terms, says Richard Berman, executive director at the Center for Union Facts. They've been used to monopoly status and now they have to deal with competition.

But Berman says right to work doesn't mean unions have to throw up their hands in despair. He points to effective unions in right-to-work states like Texas and Virginia. He says these unions have retooled to focus more on member concerns and less on ideological and political battles.

Right to work should help rightsize union influence in Michigan politics, as unions historically have used their huge coffers to sway legislation. And it should help make unions more responsive to members' concerns. That's a win for everyone.