This development caps a 75-year campaign by the business community to snuff out the right of workers to bargain collectively. All that talk about defending the right of workers not to be forced to pay union dues is nothing more than corporate propaganda. The real aim is not freedom of choice for workers but the freedom of employers to operate in whatever way they please without interference from their employees.
The causes of the decline in union power are well known: labor-saving technology that reduced the demand for unskilled and semi-skilled workers; competition from cheaper foreign workers; structural shifts in the economy toward the service sector and smaller firms, both of which proved less amenable to unionization; and deregulation of transportation and communications industries that had been accommodating to unionization.
Much of the growth in union membership in recent decades has come in the public sector, but even that has proven to be a mixed blessing once voters came to realize it was they who were paying for all that job security and generous pensions.
And across the Rust Belt, there is also a growing resentment against unions whose over-reaching is widely viewed as contributing to the region’s economic decline. For years, places such as Detroit, Milwaukee, Cleveland and Gary, Ind., have had on offer everything a global manufacturing firm might desire: cheap land, empty factories, large pools of trained and experienced workers, well-established transportation networks and governments desperate to accommodate. If you ask manufacturing executives — as I have on many occasions — how they can pass up such offers, the answer invariably comes down to apprehension about unions and workers accustomed to a unionized work environment. That surely helps to explain why Wisconsin, Ohio, Indiana and now Michigan have recently enacted laws meant to signal that these state should no longer be viewed as union strongholds.
While there may still be great symbolic significance to Michigan’s right-to-work law, there is no longer much practical significance. This is an old fight about an outdated idea that has little resonance in today’s economy.
Back in the ’50s and ’60s, when firms began to move operations from New England and the Midwest for the South, right-to-work laws were surely part of the attraction, along with cheap land, low taxes, lax regulation and a pool of unskilled workers just off the farm and desperate for employment. Since then, of course, a lot has changed. Now, companies looking for cheap labor can go to Mexico or Vietnam, while the weakening of union power over the years has largely closed the gap between the cost of unionized and non-unionized labor.