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Dean Baker

Dean Baker is co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research

December 19th, 2012 1:23 PM

Michigan Republicans Deny Police Officers and Firefighters the Right to Work

That is what the headlines would say if anyone really believed that the anti-union laws passed last week in Michigan actually had anything to do with the rights of workers. When the legislature outlawed contracts requiring workers who benefit from union representation to pay for that representation, it explicitly exempted the police and firefighters’ unions. If this law was actually about the “right to work,” the Republican legislature and Governor Snyder were effective denying the right to work to the state’s police officers and firefighters.

Of course this law has nothing to do with the right to work (RTW), as everyone involved knows; that is just the spin from the anti-labor coalition. This is why police unions and firefighters’ unions were exempted. The Republicans were trying to buy off these workers with special favors, not singling them out for punishment.

There is no issue of rights involved in this dispute. The question is whether workers, through their union, can sign a contract that imposes conditions on employment, just as the employer can impose conditions on employment.

When an employer advertises a job, it offers a specific pay and benefit package. If a worker doesn’t like that pay and benefit package no one says that she is being denied the right to work. The obvious answer is that the worker should go somewhere else.

In this case, the question is whether a union contract can require that everyone who benefits from the union’s representation to pay for that representation. (Under the law, a union is required to represent everyone in a bargaining unit, whether or not they join the union.) This is a condition of work, just like the pay and benefit package offered by the employer. And the answer for the people who don’t like a particular union, or unions in general, is that they have the right to work somewhere else.

Republicans have not suddenly developed a fondness for workers’ rights. They know the obvious. If workers are given the opportunity to freeload on the union that represents them, then some workers will take advantage of this opportunity. This will make unions weaker and therefore less effective in bargaining with management.

This weakening of unions will impose a real cost on all workers in the state, both union and non-union. Unions don’t just raise the wages of the workers who are members. Unions raise the wages of all workers, since in an environment where unions are common employers realize that they must pay a competitive wage in order not to give workers an incentive to unionize.

A recent study [http://www.epi.org/publication/bp299/] from the Economic Policy Institute found that even after controlling for education, experience and a wide variety of other factors, the average hourly wage in states with freedom of contract was 3.2 percent higher than in RTW states. Workers in states with freedom of contract were also much more likely to have employer provided health care and pensions at their workplace.

If they didn’t adjust for education and other variables the wage gap between the freedom of contract and right to work states increased to 16 percent. Arguably this number might be a better measure of the cost of having RTW restrictions in a state since the education of the workforce is influenced by the policies pursued by state and local governments. Unions have generally been strong supporters of good public education systems. Therefore it would not be surprising if workers have better education in freedom of contract states. The pay premium that these workers enjoy is one of the benefits of stronger unions.

Unions also have historically also been important in promoting upward mobility among immigrants, African American, and Latinos. This effort to crush unions is also closing an important path to the middle class.

The supporters of RTW argue that by weakening the power of unions and depressing wages they will make Michigan a more attractive place to do business, which will ultimately benefit everyone, including the state’s workers. We have been testing this claim for more than 60 years. How many people would consider RTW Mississippi and Arkansas more desirable places to live than freedom of contract Ohio and Illinois?

The RTW supporters might claim Mississippi and Arkansas and other RTW states started out way behind the relatively wealthy states with freedom of contract. But this has been a rather lengthy experiment; South Korea went from Sub Saharan living standards to West European living standards in a considerably shorter period of time. If RTW were some great elixir for improving living standards it clearly takes a long time to see the benefits.

The real story is quite simple. We have a group of rich business owners who are willing to lie cheat and steal to get even richer. The greed of this elite has already had devastating consequences for the economy. But the latest attack on workers’ rights in Michigan shows that they have no intention of backing off.

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