News Story

These Teachers Earning More Under ‘Right To Work For Less’

Their union is getting less, though

In December 2012, under a Detroit Free Press headline that read “Right To Work For Less,” a pair of letters appeared from two Michigan schoolteachers who condemned the state’s just-passed right-to-work law.

Teacher salary data is in the public record, and the records show whether and how much the income of those teachers has been changed since the end of 2012.

The letter from one of the teachers, Greg Talberg of Howell Public Schools, read, in part: “Right-to-work legislation will have a devastating impact on the already shrinking Michigan middle class. We have a capitalist system based on greed. That’s not a criticism. It’s a fact.”

He added: “Without powerful unions, middle-class workers are powerless to demand fair wages and benefits.”

After five years of employment in a right-to-work state, Talberg’s total salary as a public school teacher had increased from $57,804 in 2013-14 to $71,351 in 2018-19. Teacher salary figures may include extra pay for performing duties not required by the union contract.

Douglas Coates, a teacher at Livonia Public Schools, wrote the second letter, which was titled “The goal: Lower wages.” Coates wrote, “Right-to-work legislation’s real purpose is to drive down the wages and benefits of all workers, union and non-union.”

Coates’ salary rose from $86,586 in 2013-14 to $93,367 in 2018-19. Under most Michigan school districts’ union contracts, pay rates rise rapidly early in a teacher’s career but stagnate after an individual reaches the top of the union pay scale. This has been the case for decades, and it likely explains the modest increase in Coates’ compensation.

Right-to-work laws prohibit employers from compelling workers in unionized workplaces to pay the union as a condition of employment. There is more than anecdotal evidence that Michigan’s right-to-work law has not negatively affected workers’ incomes.

After adjusting for inflation, per capita personal income in Michigan has increased from the equivalent of $42,719 in 2012 to $48,423 in 2018. And median household income (also in 2018 dollars) has increased from $51,250 in 2012 to $56,697 in 2018.

But that’s not how critics of the right-to-work law predicted incomes would change in Michigan.

For example, in December of 2012, Ross Eisenbrey, then vice president of the union-funded Economic Policy Institute, was highly critical of Michigan passing the law.

"Right–to-work-for-less laws are about nothing more than weakening unions, lowering wages, and freeing corporate America to turn back the clock on employee rights and regulation of labor standards," Eisenbrey wrote.

University of Michigan economist Don Grimes questioned how much impact the right-to-work law has on a resident’s income.

“I think [the] major impact of right to work will be on union revenue,” Grimes said in an email. “Over a really long run, it might reduce wages a bit, but would also increase employment, so [its] effect on total personal income is going to be a combination of these two counteractions.”

Grimes continued: “But both wage gains and employment change are influenced by so many other factors, mostly much more important than right-to-work laws, that you would probably never be able to tease out a statistically meaningful effect on income.”

Talberg and Coates work in school districts whose teachers were unionized decades ago by the Michigan Education Association or its predecessor. In 2011, before right-to-work became the law in Michigan, 120,616 school employees were paying dues or fees to that teachers union. By 2018, this number had fallen 29.6% to 84,872. Annual MEA revenue declined from $145.4 million in 2011 to $113.3 million in 2018, according to disclosures required under federal law.