Last week, Michigan became the 24th state to pass a right-to-work law, giving workers there the right to decide whether they want to join a union in the workplace.
The development is significant. Michigan has long been considered a strong union state, primarily because of the auto industry and the United Auto Workers Union.
But a high unemployment rate (9.1%) and Republican gains in the 2010 statehouse elections allowed for what once would have been considered unthinkable in the Wolverine state.
Supporters of the new law, including Gov. Rick Snyder, believe the move makes Michigan a more business-friendly state.
Labor leaders are furious… and panicked. Teamsters President Jimmy Hoffa is promising a “civil war” in Michigan, which is tantamount to planning a counter-attack after Appomattox.
Union membership has declined steadily in this country over the last 50 years. In the 1960′s, nearly one in three American workers belonged to a union; today it’s about one in ten.
Much of the decline is rooted in fundamental changes in industry, such as increased mechanization, and the migration of work where it can be done more cheaply.
Additionally, the knowledge-based economy means a worker’s wages are more directly linked to his skills. For the individual worker, that means knowledge is a better route to higher pay and benefits than belonging to a union and allowing someone else to negotiate on your behalf.
Right-to-work laws are no longer novelties of conservative politicians. Instead they are an increasingly important part of the overall package that states present to try to lure new businesses.
The Wall Street Journal reported this week, “According to the West Michigan Policy Forum, of the 10 states with the highest rate of personal income growth, eight have right-to-work laws. Those numbers are driving net migration from forced union states: Between 2000 and 2010, five million people to right-to-work states from compulsory union states.”
But right-to-work laws are also about a moral right that all workers should have–the right to decide whether to join a union and pay dues to an organization that the worker may or may not agree with.
The continued spread of right-to-work laws does not mean the death of unions. It does, however, mean that union leaders, who have enjoyed the benefits of compulsory membership and the dues that go with that, will have to return to the basics and explain to individual workers the benefits of joining a union.
And they better adjust to the paradigm shift quickly. If right-to-work can pass in Michigan, it can pass anywhere, including West Virginia.