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As Mich. Becomes 24th Right-to-Work State, Is This the Beginning of the End of Union Influence?


"Whoever votes for this is not going to have any peace for the next two years.”

Credit dannybirchall/flickr

In a move that’s sure to infuriate and dishearten union leaders everywhere, Michigan became the 24th right-to-work state on Tuesday after Gov. Rick Snyder signed into law two bills that prohibit unions from collecting fees from nonunion employees.

"I have signed these bills into law,” the Republican governor said at a press conference a few hours after the House passed the bills. “We are moving forward on the topic of workplace fairness and equality."

“I don’t view this as anti-labor. I view this as pro-worker,” he added.

A bill dealing with private-sector workers passed the House on a 22-16 vote last week after hours of “impassioned debate,” as the Associated Press puts it. All 12 House Democrats opposed the bill. Four Republicans joined them.

“Moments after it passed, the Senate passed a bill with similar provisions for government employees. Democrats walked out before the bill was approved on a 22-4 vote,” the AP adds.

All that remained after last week’s events was for the Michigan Legislature to reconvene for one final vote and for Gov. Rick Snyder to sign the bills into law.

And sign he did.

Workers protesting the right-to-work proposal in Michigan. (AP)

But here’s the thing: Michigan’s switch from unionism to right-to-work comes six months after big labor’s pricey and failed attempt to recall Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker and 11 months after Indiana became the Rust Belt’s very first right-to-work state. In short, organized labor has suffered substantial losses in what was once considered its backyard.

This raises the obvious question: Do these defeats signal the beginning of the end for unions and their influence? Like most things in life, the answer is uncertain.

“Democrats depend on millions -- actually, billions -- of dollars in support from the forced dues of union members. If that money supply were to dry up, or even just decrease, the Democratic Party would be in serious trouble,” writes the Washington Examiner’s Byron York.

That is to say, by virtue of the fact that organized labor (and organized labor’s money) favors Democrat politicians, any hiccup in cash flows could pose a grave risk to all future campaigns.

Map of right-to-work states (RTW in red)

“Unions depend on their money from dues for a variety of election activities, and the less money they have to do that, the less influence they have,” said Marick Masters, the director of labor studies at Wayne State University in Detroit, in a recent Bloomberg article.

“The recent election shows if you want to play the game, it takes money. The less you have, the less your voice will be heard,” he adds.

Indeed, considering the fact that organized labor lavished more than $188 million from January 2011 until October 2012 on federal-level political races, we’d say the recipients of union donations should be very worried about the passage of right-to-work legislation in the Rust Belt.

"President Obama was the recipient of literally hundreds of millions of dollars from union officials," said Mark Mix, president of the National Right to Work Committee. "If union officials can't compel union workers to pay dues as a condition of their employment, the fees that they use for political activity would dry up very quickly."

In short, laws that prohibit unions from forcing nonunion members to pay dues could make labor’s powerful role in U.S. politics a thing of the past.

U.S. President Barack Obama and President of the AFL-CIO Richard Trumka joke about eating cake on President Obama's 49th birthday. (Getty Images)

Unsurprisingly, the move by Michigan lawmakers has drawn scathing criticism from a host of left-leaning personalities, including President Barack Obama and President of the AFL-CIO Richard Trumka.

“What we shouldn’t be doing is trying to take away your rights to bargain for better wages,” President Obama told an audience of United Auto Workers (UAW) employees in Redford, Mich., on Monday. “These so-called right-to-work laws, they don’t have anything to do with economics, they have to do with politics.”

“What they’re really talking about is to give you the right to work for less money,” he added.

For his part, Trumka accused Gov. Snyder of being a “puppet of extreme donors.”

“Gov. Snyder showed his true colors today,” Trumka said in a statement on Tuesday. “His action will undoubtedly please the Koch Brothers and corporate CEOs, but it will diminish the voice of every working man and woman in Michigan.”

“To make ‘right-to-work’ a reality,” the statement continues, “Governor Rick Snyder ignored working Michiganders, the faith and civil rights community, President Obama, people in his own party, autoworkers, nurses, teachers, firefighters, the Detroit Free Press editorial board and voters. He listened to Grover Norquist, Dick DeVos, the Koch brothers and the extremes of his party.”

Meanwhile, Michigan Education Association President Steve Cook, in a none-too-subtle threat to lawmakers, on Monday warned of repercussions against anyone who supported the right-to-work legislation.

“Whoever votes for this,” Cook said, “is not going to have any peace for the next two years.”

Gov. Snyder (AP)

But despite all their warnings and vows to wreak havoc, it would appear at this moment that public opinion favors right-to-works laws and that big labor is losing.

Bottom Line: As long as organized labor continues to lose these right-to-work battles, its cash flow will dry up. With a loss of cash comes a loss of political usefulness and with a loss of political usefulness comes a loss of power.

Perhaps labor's recent defeats have something to do with the fact that union membership has fallen precipitously over the past three decades. Or maybe a majority of Americans finally agree with the economist Walter Williams in thinking that, in a free and democratic society, association should never be a requirement for establishing a contract for employment.

Follow Becket Adams (@BecketAdams) on Twitter

Featured image courtesy the AP.

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