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Repeal of Michigan's Right to Work law -- what impact does it actually have on workers?

Michigan union workers protesting Right to Work legislation at State Capitol in Lansing, December 11, 2012
Equality Michigan through the LGBT Free Media Collective/ creativecommons.org
Michigan union workers protesting Right to Work legislation at State Capitol in Lansing, December 11, 2012


Cathy Shafran: This is 89.1 WEMU. I'm Cathy Shafran. The newly Democratic controlled state Legislature in Lansing appears headed for a repeal of Michigan's Right to Work law that was passed more than a decade ago when Republicans controlled the state House. It makes dues paying optional at unionized workplaces. As the repeal was passed in the state House, Democrats claimed it was about restoring rights for workers, and they also praised their action restoring the state's prevailing wage law. But what does this all mean to the average worker? What does it mean to you and I? We pose those questions to Roland Zullo, a research scientist at U of M School of Social Work. Thank you so much for joining us, Roland.

Roland Zullo
University of Michigan School of Social Work
Roland Zullo

Roland Zullo: Well, thank you for inviting me.

Cathy Shafran: First, let's talk. Right to Work. Some would say that it's a phrase that may be a bit misleading. Why was it created, and what was the whole concept for it back a decade ago?

Roland Zullo: It is a misnomer. It has really nothing to do about the right to work or has very little to do about the right to work. It's more about whether or not a labor union can negotiate a labor agreement. And, in that labor agreement, they have a clause that requires all of the people covered by the labor agreement to pay something toward the union: cost of negotiating and administering the agreement and, you know, filing grievances, and so forth. So, it's a way in which the union can collect dues from everybody.

Cathy Shafran: In Michigan, a decade ago, when the Republicans instituted the right to work law, why were they doing it?

Roland Zullo: What right to work does is it affects the way in which unions operate. It basically makes life a little bit more difficult for labor unions. It makes it more difficult for them to raise the revenue they need to do the things they do. It creates larger incentives for members to just exit membership. When they do, they pay their own dues. The other effect it seems to have is it does passing a right to work law appears as if it removes unions from political advocacy, which was probably one of the motives as well.

Cathy Shafran: And what has been the impact of it being in place for over ten years?

Roland Zullo: Well, the impact is somewhat mixed. The studies that are out now tend to suggest that it may have been a rather modest impact on membership, although there's questions about those studies. In my own work, I've seen that there appears to be no difference after right to work in terms of unions going out there to organize workers because of the reduction in revenues. They'll cut back on overhead. They'll cut back on some political mobilization activities.

Cathy Shafran: Did the law make unions less effective?

Roland Zullo: Hard to say. Again, it changed their internal operations. One of the interesting findings I had from my work is it appeared that decertification elections went down after right to work was passed. In an unanticipated way. right to work may have actually benefited the union movement along that single dimension. There's roughly a 20% drop in the number of decertification elections.

Cathy Shafran: Did it make them any less effective at the bargaining table?

Roland Zullo: I don't know of any research on that.

Cathy Shafran: And did it affect membership?

Roland Zullo: There's some evidence out there of a modest decrease in membership, although most of that appears to be connected with workers in the public sector, less so in the private sector. So, it's had somewhat mixed effects, mixed almost in some cases, almost zero effect.

Cathy Shafran: So, your findings are that the right to work legislation in Michigan did not seem to have a dramatic impact on membership, and you're not quite sure about the impact on and whether it had any impact at the bargaining table. Yet, we have lawmakers who are forging ahead to make sure that it's repealed and saying that this will restore the rights of workers. How do we balance those two positions? Did it really have some impact? And what exactly is it restoring?

Roland Zullo: Did it have an impact? And the answer is we don't really know. I don't think anyone knows for sure precisely what the impact was. Changes in the union density in a state like Michigan have a lot more to do with the industries in Michigan and how well they're doing. When the auto industry is doing very well, they hire more employees, and unionization within the auto sector goes up. When the auto industry is in a slump, they cut back on factory shifts and begin to reduce. So, there are factors outside of right to work that are at play here. And I haven't seen any convincing study that really carefully adjusts for those factors. So, in terms of the impact, I think it's unclear. For me, I think that this is more symbolic. I think this is more about a symbolic victory for either side trying to win something over on the other. For labor, to be able to go back and restore the ability to bargain over these clauses, that would be a significant win for them. That would be a significant political win for them.

Cathy Shafran: How would it impact an average worker?

Roland Zullo: The biggest effect it'll have is workers who are working in these plants that aren't members. They don't want to be members. They don't want to pay any dues at all. What happens if right to work is repealed is that these workers will have to pay what's referred to as their fair share. Basically, what right to work does is it allows people who are benefiting from the agreement to opt out, to not pay anything toward the cost of that agreement. That's what right to work does. And the proponents of right to work law, they see that as a way to undermine union power.

Cathy Shafran: So, let's move on now to talk about the other action that was taken by the House, and that was the prevailing wage. Can you explain how a change in that, a restoration of the prevailing wage law, would impact a worker?

Roland Zullo: Well, prevailing wage laws concern primarily workers in the construction industries. Basically, what a prevailing wage law does is it requires any contractor working on a public project—this would be a state partially or fully funded state project—to meet certain wage requirements. And usually, those wage requirements are close to, but slightly below, what the union wage rate would pay in the area, kind of a minimum wage in the construction industry for projects that are funded by the state. By having that higher minimum wage, it allows the unionized sector in the building trades to be more cost competitive.

Cathy Shafran: And the concept of doing away with that was for what purpose?

Roland Zullo: Well, the usual justification for it. You remove it, and then it allows more wage price competition on the bids.

Cathy Shafran: And is there any research to see whether that in fact happened?

Roland Zullo: There's been quite a bit of research done on this, and, by and large, it's, again, mixed. There's some research out there showing that you remove prevailing wage laws, that it might lower the cost of construction projects. However, there's also counter-research that basically says that, okay, maybe the costs went down, however, the quality went down to quite a bit. Once you adjust for the quality of the output, then the savings really aren't there. So, I've seen research that has said that as well.

Cathy Shafran: So, restoring the prevailing wage in Michigan means what to the average construction worker?

Roland Zullo: Well, I think it helps the construction worke—the average construction worker—because it requires contractors working on state funded projects to pay a prevailing wage.

Cathy Shafran: The topic that we haven't addressed is public workers. Are they touched by either of these laws?

Roland Zullo: In Michigan, roughly 40% of the union members in Michigan are in the public sector. And for those workers, repealing the right to work law is not going to have any effect because of a 2018 Supreme Court decision—the Janus decision, which basically found any kind of requirement that workers pay dues in the public sector to be an encroachment on their free speech rights. So, things will not change for workers in the public sector here in Michigan. And that's roughly, you know, 40% of the workforce. And where you don't see a huge effect on Right to Work is for unions that have really strong identities with their members. Again, I'm thinking again about the building trades. And there, passing right to work law really didn't have a huge effect on them. A little less than half of the unions of union members in Michigan will either be unaffected or only slightly affected by repealing the right to work law. For the prevailing wage law, that is going to benefit construction workers, both union and nonunion.

Cathy Shafran: And will it cause higher prices for construction and new builds and any type of construction in the state?

Roland Zullo: The research on this is somewhat mixed, and a lot of it is, as you might imagine, politically charged. So, a lot of it's mixed. There's some evidence out there that construction building costs do go down. However, once those costs are adjusted for quality and productivity, then those gains tend to diminish or go away.

Cathy Shafran: Overall, then, if we were to sum up the legislation that is passed in the House is a win for unionized workers to some extent?

Roland Zullo: Oh yes.

Cathy Shafran: And a loss to whom?

Roland Zullo: It's a loss to the people who advocated for a right to work law to begin with. So, they're the ones who lose. I think, in general, repealing right to work certainly helps the labor movement on a couple of levels. But the main one, I would say, is that it shows that, you know, labor has regained a little bit of political power in this state.

Cathy Shafran: So, in the end, it's a political win for Labor and a political loss for the Republicans who thought to thwart them.

Roland Zullo: Broadly at that level. Yes.

Cathy Shafran: And to the economy of the state of Michigan, not really a way to assess an impact on that.

Roland Zullo: Really hard to do. I haven't seen any convincing research that says that this is often the argument made by people who support right to work law that, you know, we passed these laws and then suddenly everything gets great. But economically, that economic conditions improve. But the evidence on that is very thin and dubious.

Cathy Shafran: Roland Zullo, research scientist with U of M School of Social Work, I want to thank you so much for joining us and really adding a lot of insight to the impact of Right to Work laws in Michigan.

Roland Zullo: Thank you. It's been a pleasure.

Cathy Shafran: Thank you. I'm Cathy Shafran and this is 89 one WEMU FM, Ypsilanti.

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Cathy Shafran was WEMU's afternoon news anchor and local host during WEMU's broadcast of NPR's All Things Considered.
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