Right-to-Work Law Means Less Money For Union Political Power Grabs

Gov. Rick Snyder said he wasn't interested in a right-to-work bill, but when labor unions pushed the Proposal 2 ballot initiative, his stance on the issue changed.

Prop 2 would have guaranteed public employee collective bargaining and overridden state laws that conflict with local contracts. And, as union leaders noted at the time, it would have prevented a right-to-work law from ever happening.

One of the main effects of right-to-work laws is that they lessen the abilities of unions to wage expensive and economically harmful ballot campaigns. In fact, that may be the main outcome of the legislation.

Despite the doomsday scenarios, right-to-work laws do not eliminate unions. States like Nevada and Iowa have high unionization rates, while allowing workers to choose whether or not to send money to unions. What does change in these states is the amount of time and money labor unions spend on politics.

In Michigan, labor unions have spent a lot of their money politically the past decade on costly attempts to change the constitution. When they couldn't get their way through the legislature, an attempted overhaul of the state constitution was where membership dues often went. For example:

  • In 2002, a coalition of public employee unions pushed an initiative to grant state-classified employees collective bargaining with binding arbitration. Certain state government workers are under the authority of a bipartisan Civil Service Commission — the change to the constitution would have ended the CSC's authority and ensured that the state was bargaining directly with elected union bosses. This would have increased costs and uncertainty; it failed 54 percent to 46 percent.
  • In 2008, labor unions pushed for an additional $565 million in school funding and mandated increases going forward. Over the previous decade, Michigan had increased K-12 funding by 40 percent — an extra billion above inflation. Despite this, the unions wanted more, and they wanted it guaranteed in the state constitution. The Michigan Education Association was the main proponent of the bill, raising $4.5 million for the effort; it failed 62 percent to 38 percent.
  • In 2008, employee unions and allies within the Democratic Party pushed a ballot proposal "Reform Michigan Government Now" in which the purpose was, in their words: "Changing the rules of politics in Michigan to help Democrats." If instituted in the constitution, it would have changed the rules for the legislature, the courts and the governorship specifically to harm the opposing political party. The campaign got over 400,000 signatures and raised millions before a PowerPoint presentation was discovered by a Mackinac Center intern outlining the scheme. The proposal was roundly criticized in the media and thrown out by a three-judge panel.
  • In 2012, a variety of labor unions pushed Proposal 2 (discussed above) and Proposal 4, which would have locked tens of thousands of home-based caregivers into the Service Employees International Union and continued the skimming of tens of millions of dollars to one select union. The unions spent at least $25 million on the proposals; they were defeated 57 percent to 42 percent, and 56 percent to 44 percent, respectively.

Outside of ballot proposals, unions have attempted recalls as well as direct donations to candidates and Political Action Committees to try and influence laws in their favor. In right-to-work states, this is much less frequent. 

It's true that one of the reasons unions spend less is because they are bringing in less money. But when unions have to convince members that they are worth the costs, it shouldn't be a surprise that they tend to lower the cost of dues and spend less time and money in politics and more on local bargaining matters.

The counter to this argument is that business groups and others also spend money on politics and ballot proposals as well. The difference with those groups is that they cannot force their employees or membership to spend time and money on controversial political issues; the membership or supporters of those groups have to care enough about the issue to willingly put up their own money. That is exactly what will happen for labor unions as they become more in tune with the wants and needs of their membership through the right-to-work law.

This makes sense. All groups that accept funds voluntarily have to worry about the wants of their membership. If they continually push massive and partisan changes in state government, members can get upset. Until a right-to-work law was passed, it mattered little to labor unions how strongly many of their forced dues payers felt about certain issues — most of that money went to the salaries and retirement benefits of union administrators who work on political issues.

When dues payers can truly choose whether or not to send money to a private group, that group will become more concerned with what the membership thinks. Going forward, Michigan can likely expect more of a focus on local bargaining and less on costly attempts to overhaul state laws.

Michigan Capitol Confidential is the news source produced by the Mackinac Center for Public Policy. Michigan Capitol Confidential reports with a free-market news perspective.