Since the horrendous events of last Sept. 11, firemen, police, and rescue workers—most of them unionized—have experienced a new wave of respect and admiration from grateful citizens across the nation. And rightfully so. These are the people who, as part of their daily routine, pledge to lay down their lives if necessary, and when the call comes, risk it all. The choice they make—to serve their neighborhoods, communities, towns, and cities in this way—is made freely; it is not coerced.
The idea of choice should be the focus of profound contemplation as America celebrates this coming Labor Day; for while the choice of so many firefighters to enter the World Trade Center towers on Sept. 11 was made freely, the choice of whether or not they would join a union was not.
Freedom of association is part of Michigan’s work culture and the legitimate basis upon which the union movement has pressed its claims and established legal protections for workers in our national and state labor laws. But what about the freedom not to join a union and to bargain the value of one’s labor on an individual basis? Unfortunately, union acceptance of this particular right of workers has been less than enthusiastic. In fact, workers who disagree with the political stances of union leaders and try to stand up for this right often encounter downright hostility.
But workers in what are called “right-to-work” states have a much easier time of it. “Right-to-work” refers to a state law or constitutional provision that bans the practice of requiring union membership or financial support as a condition of employment. Last September, Oklahoma voters approved a right-to-work referendum, making theirs the 22nd state in which workers cannot be forced to join a union in order to work in a unionized workplace.
Right-to-work laws not only respect workers’ rights, but also make sound economic sense. A comprehensive Mackinac Center for Public Policy study, entitled “The Effect of Right-to-Work Laws on Economic Development,” demonstrates that while Michigan’s economy improved over the last 10 years, economic growth in the state has lagged behind that of right-to-work states in almost every category.
Here are just a few examples. Between 1970 and 2000, right-to-work states created jobs nearly twice as fast as did Michigan. From 1977 through 1999, Michigan’s gross domestic product grew at only around half the rate of right-to-work states. From 1978 through 2000, the unemployment rate in Michigan was, on average, 2.3 percent higher than in right-to-work states. And while Michigan wages are nominally higher than those in right-to-work states, after correcting for differences in the cost of living, the typical family in a right-to-work state has $2,800 more in purchasing power per year.
And that’s not all. Information garnered by the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics shows that while the percentage of all Americans living in poverty dropped 6.7 percent between 1969 to 2000, Michigan—along with six other non-right-to-work states—actually registered a poverty increase. Just as worrisome are Michigan’s unit labor costs, which place our state 49th out of 50 when it comes to compensation relative to productivity.
According to the study’s author, economist Dr. William Wilson, “The state of Michigan, because it lacks a strong right-to-work law, has not attained its full economic potential and, in many respects, its economy is declining. The compelling conclusion is that right-to-work laws increase state economic development and overall prosperity.”
Michigan workers need not suffer from these political and economic disadvantages. In fact, there exists a substantial base of support for a right-to-work law, which garnered the approval of 62 percent of Michigan respondents in a recent poll conducted by Research 2000.
The economic arguments for a right-to-work law are strong—but equally important is the respect that such laws pay to the intelligence and judgment of America’s working men and women. Union members in New York were willing to put their lives on the line—and many were lost—trying to save their fellow citizens. Certainly men and women capable of such bravery and self-sacrifice can be trusted to decide whether or not a union needs or deserves their financial support.
And so can their counterparts in Michigan.
(Paul S. Kersey is labor research associate with the Mackinac Center for Public Policy. Permission to reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided the author and his affiliation are cited.)