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Right-to-work laws: 5 things you should know

  • Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder signed into law the controversial right-to-work legislation
  • Michigan is now the 24th right-to-work state
Right-to-work laws: 5 things you should know

There has always been debate in this country surrounding unions, organized labor and employment issues in general, especially in recent years as more and more Americans have lost jobs and the state of the economy has continued to affect struggling families. Massive protests broke out in Lansing, Michigan, as workers tried to stop legislators from passing a bill that would change union laws. But it didn’t work.

Late Tuesday afternoon, Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder signed into law the controversial right-to-work legislation that’s aimed at reducing organized labor. The law will allow workers at union-represented employers to opt out of paying union dues.

Michigan is now the 24th state with right-to-work laws. In Michigan, 17.5% of employees are represented by unions, which is what makes this legislation such a big deal. Michigan is now the most heavily unionized state to pass such a ban.

Unions are organizations that negotiate with corporations, businesses and other organizations on behalf of union members. Trade unions represent workers who do a particular job, while industrial unions represent workers in a particular industry. Unions were originally created to help improve working conditions and wages in industries that were heavily regulated, but many industries have changed the way they operate since the 1950s. Industry deregulation and increased competition have in recent years made unions obsolete in many parts of the U.S.

When it comes to Michigan’s right-to-work legislation, here’s what you need to know:

What does “right to work” even mean?

The law isn’t actually about the right to work. It refers to a worker’s right to choose whether he or she wants to join and financially support a union, or pay fees similar to union dues. Basically, it makes it illegal to force workers to join unions or pay dues.

Union dues & representation

In states with right-to-work laws, employees in unionized workplaces don’t have to pay unions for the cost of being represented. Critics of the legislation say the goal is to strip unions of money in order to reduce their bargaining power, and they allow nonunion workers to get the perks of union representation without having to pay for it. Supporters of the bill, including Michigan’s Republican leaders, argue it’s about workers’ freedom of association, individual choice, and a better climate for businesses in the state.

For & against

Supporters of the legislation argue it’s important to give workers the right to choose whether they want to join a union. Critics argue that reducing the union’s resources, or money that comes in the form of member dues, would weaken its power to bargain. The average full-time employee in a right-to-work state makes about $1,500 less a year, according to the Economic Policy Institute, a left-leaning group. GOP advocates of the legislation say workers shouldn’t be forced to join and financially support a union that uses a large portion of its money to campaign and elect democrats to office. In 2010, more than 93% of union political support went to Democrats, while 42% of union households voted Republican, according to exit-poll data.

24th right-to-work state

Michigan is now the 24th and most heavily unionized state to pass right-to-work legislation. The other 23 right-to-work states are mostly in the South and Western Plains. Over the past couple of years, the number of American workers in unions has fallen to a 70-year low of 11.8%. Michigan currently has the fifth-highest rate of union membership, with 17.5% of workers in unions. New York has the highest, with 24.1%, and North Carolina has the lowest, with 2.9%.

Unions in uproar

Union workers filled the state capitol building in Lansing, Michigan, and lined the streets to rally against the legislation. Michigan is home to the famous United Auto Workers Union and the three largest U.S. automakers. With fewer resources and less money, the unions will lose some of their bargaining power, as well as some of their political influence, and many people aren’t happy about it. Union workers also aren’t happy that nonunion workers will still be represented by the unions, without having to pay the cost.

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