It’s now been two weeks since the passage of what many thought was the legislative equivalent of pigs flying, hell freezing over, and the Chicago Cubs winning the World Series all happening at the same time: Michigan became the 24th state in the union to enact a “right to work” law.
If it can happen in Michigan, it can happen anywhere — even in my home state of Ohio. But from all appearances, if the Buckeye State succeeds in going the “right to work” route, it won’t be because of anything the state’s governor or Republican establishment leadership does.
Contrary to what opponents say, “right to work” is only “anti-union” if you believe that the closed shop is some kind of neutral management-labor arrangement. It’s not. Unions claiming to represent their workers can assess whatever level of dues they wish, hire as many administrative and activist cronies as they wish, and spend their members’ dues pretty much as they wish. Much of the time, their “work” involves lavish outlays and activities which have little or no direct relationship to worker representation. A recent Heritage Foundation analysis of government reports showed that “less than a quarter (24.1 percent) of expenditures by Michigan’s 25 largest private sector (or public/private hybrid) union locals go towards actually representing workers.” Much of the other three-quarters goes to unjustifiable salaries for union bosses and their administrative help which often run well into six figures, expensive junkets they call “business meetings,” and, of course, massive contributions in both money and boots on the ground to labor-sympathetic politicians.
Yet it’s the unions who hypocritically complain that workers in “right to work” states who won’t join up are the “freeloaders.”
In a closed shop, workers who don’t like what their union is doing can’t resign from the union without losing their jobs. Withholding payment of dues isn’t an option either, at least not without an expensive, protracted fight, because employers almost invariably must deduct dues from workers’ paychecks under the union contract. Thanks to the Supreme Court’s 1988 Communications Workers of America vs. Beck ruling, workers can demand a return of “funds collected from them on activities unrelated to collective-bargaining activities.” But because the federal government and virtually no states have codified the Beck ruling into law, workers must attempt to collect individually, while resource-rich unions are free to drag out and otherwise resist such requests.
Contrary to media reports which claim that the term is misleading — reports which are often prepared by journalists who are themselves union members — “right to work” perfectly describes what laws outlawing the closed shop accomplish. Employees can negotiate with prospective employers for their services without having to join whatever union may represent some of a location’s workers. That is, they now have the “right to work” anywhere their services are desired. In turn, employers have the right to hire workers who choose to join or not to join a union, even if many of their workers are already represented by one.
Heaven knows that Michigan had to do something to reverse its past ten years of deterioration. In the first eight of those years under Democratic Governor Jennifer Granholm, the state lost almost 580,000 jobs and saw its population shrink. While per-capita income in the rest of the U.S. went up by about 5 percent, Michigan’s barely budged. In October, the state’s seasonally adjusted unemployment rate — which peaked at an incredible 14.2 percent under Granholm — was still 9.1 percent and stagnating.
Republican Governor Rick Snyder’s initial moves after he took office in January 2011 were good. With the help of a Republican-controlled legislature, the self-described “tough nerd” got state spending under a semblance of control and signed significant tax reform legislation. In early 2012 he started going wobbly, but found renewed spine after it became clear over this past summer that the state’s unions were functioning “as an impediment rather than a partner in fixing Michigan.” Admitting that he had been naive, Snyder changed his previous opposition on “right to work” to keep Michigan from becoming ungovernable.
Ohio would seem to be the next domino to fall, but it won’t be easy. Even though neighboring Indiana and now Michigan have passed “right to work” this year, Republican Governor John Kasich, who has indeed improved the state’s fiscal condition as well as its job market during his first two years in office, seems to believe that he can continue on that improvement path without bringing on controversy. I don’t think so. One recent study unfortunately found “Ohio has the most oversized state and local governments in the country.” That has to change.
Kasich and Ohio’s Republican establishment appear to have learned the wrong lessons from the state’s November 2011 ballot initiatives. Yes, the governor’s attempt to reform public-sector unions known as “SB5″ lost badly, but that’s because in hindsight he and the legislature tried to do too many things at once. That gave many instinctively skeptical voters, most of whom I believe would have approved most of the law’s measures if considered individually, at least one reason to oppose the package.
The day they voted down SB5, those same voters approved the Ohio Healthcare Freedom Amendment by an even larger majority than the one by which SB5 failed. That roughly 120-word amendment, a direct shot at ObamaCare, prohibits the enforcement of any state or federal laws which might otherwise require citizens to buy health insurance they don’t want. As I wrote elsewhere recently, it passed overwhelmingly because “it was easy to understand and is consistent with the freedom-loving instincts of most of the state’s residents.”
A “right to work” constitutional amendment which is on track to appear on Ohio’s ballot next November also fits that description. Unfortunately, Kasich is trying to make the simple seem complex, arguing in February that right to work is a “massive change” that would require “a couple years explaining to people what it even means and why it’s important to them.” Earlier this month, he claimed that “right to work” “is not crucial for Ohio.”
I beg to differ. The governor and the legislature need to get up off the mat and to look out for their state’s long-term economic competitiveness. Failure to pass “right to work” soon will likely slow if not stop the progress seen in the Buckeye State during the past two years.