Same RTW Fight, New Battleground
The conservative attack on workers hasn’t abated. While Minnesota voters may have rejected conservative policy direction, other Midwestern states are wading into divisive legislative fights. If Wisconsin’s experience with stripping workers of their rights is any indication, this fight is far from over and far from resolved.
Michigan’s conservative elected state legislative majorities have introduced a so-called right-to-work bill, severely curtailing labor union activity. It passed in the state house late Thursday and now awaits a Senate vote. Despite earlier advocating that Michigan avoid divisive political fights, conservative Governor Rick Snyder recently announced that he would sign an RTW bill into law.
“Right to Work” laws undermine workers collective bargaining rights by barring labor organizations from requiring membership dues of workers represented under union-negotiated work contracts. Laws allowing workers to opt-out of paying dues places enormous financial strain on a union as non-members benefit from contract terms and negotiation representation without sharing those related costs. Passing RTW legislation is widely understood as a tactic to reduce or eliminate organized labor’s presence in the workplace and in the community’s public policy advocacy debate.
Earlier this year, Minnesota’s then conservative-led legislature considered placing a RTW question on Minnesota’s fall ballot as a proposed constitutional amendment. Unlike the gay marriage ban and voting restriction questions, RTW opponents defeated the measure in the legislature. After a bruising electoral campaign, the gay marriage ban and voter ID amendments failed to achieve majority support. All three initiatives were supposed to function as political distractions, subverting voter attention from conservative policies undermining core Minnesota traditions.
RTW has, until recently, been a southern and western state phenomenon. That’s changed as conservative activists in the industrialized Midwestern states of Wisconsin, Michigan, Ohio and Indiana have enacted laws stripping workers of their rights.
In November, Michigan voters rejected a state constitutional amendment guaranteeing workers collective bargaining rights, 58-42. This has apparently encouraged conservative activists to strike back. A deeply divisive fight is looming. Michigan will be much worse for the conflict.
A few weeks ago, Minnesota 2020 released “A Losing Bet,” a report examining RTW’s impact on Minnesota. The academic literature, while not extensive, strongly suggests negative short and long-term outcomes. Minnesota would lose quality of life, minor political disagreements would regularly disrupt core public policy debates, and public infrastructure would degrade. Minnesota would lose the very things that make Minnesota Minnesotan.
While Minnesota works to move forward, past the economic recession into recovery, Michigan seems determined to fall behind. “Right to work” laws hurt workers. They also will hurt Michigan. Let’s hope that Michigan takes the Minnesota path.