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Michigan is poised to revive compulsory unionism

The state’s right-to-work law liberated workers and boosted the economy. Now Democrats want to repeal it.

An attendee listened during a House Labor Committee meeting at the Michigan State Capitol, in Lansing on March 8.EMILY ELCONIN/NYT

Just over a decade ago, Michigan lawmakers passed a right-to-work law, making their state the 24th in the nation to protect employees from compulsory unionism. It was one of the best things they ever did.

Labor leaders and their allies warned of dire consequences if Michigan became a right-to-work state and unions lost the power to force workers to pay union dues as a condition of keeping a job. They claimed wages would fall, the economy would suffer, and there would be “no positive impact whatsoever on job growth.”

They couldn’t have been more wrong.

According to data compiled by the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, inflation-adjusted average incomes in Michigan, which had risen by less than 1 percent in the nine years that preceded right-to-work, soared by 22 percent in the nine years that followed. Michigan had lost 379,000 jobs in the nine years before the passage of right-to-work in 2012 but gained 155,100 jobs in the same period afterward. The state’s unemployment rate averaged 8.5 percent between 2002 and 2012; it fell to an average of 6 percent in the decade since. Writing recently in Crain’s Detroit Business, former Michigan Senate majority leader Mike Shirkey pointed out that manufacturing jobs in particular expanded by 6.4 percent — a sharp contrast to the 1.1 percent decline in non-right-to-work states (like Massachusetts).

Becoming a right-to-work state, former governor Rick Snyder observed in The Detroit News last week, was the equivalent of changing the sign on Michigan’s figurative front door from “Closed” to “Open for Business.” So long as it was legal in Michigan to force workers to kick back part of each paycheck to a union, Snyder said, “many out-of-state companies would not consider Michigan as a potential location.” Once right-to-work passed, “Michigan became a real magnet for job attraction,” at times leading the nation in creating manufacturing jobs.


Yet all that may come to a crashing halt this week. The Michigan Legislature is poised to roll back the right-to-work law that has proven so successful. Governor Gretchen Whitmer has pledged to sign the repeal if it comes to her desk. Democrats recently took full control of state government for the first time in 40 years, and killing right-to-work is one of their top priorities.


Why? For one reason only: to reward the state’s biggest labor unions, which spent millions of dollars to elect Michigan Democrats last fall.

According to Bridge Michigan, a nonpartisan news organization, the state’s five largest unions contributed $3 million in political contributions during the election, 98 percent of which went to Democrats. Union bosses hate right-to-work for the obvious reason that it allows workers to decide for themselves whether to join a labor union or not. In the decade since the law went into effect, the Mackinac Center calculates, the number of Michigan workers paying union dues dropped by 26 percent. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, overall union membership declined by at least 40,000, dwindling from 629,000 in 2012 to 589,000 in 2022. As those numbers suggest, unions continue to attract many Michigan employees. But right-to-work protections meant that membership was voluntary, as it always should have been.

Democrats have only a two-seat majority in the state Senate and House of Representatives, and killing right-to-work isn’t going to make them more popular. Polls of Michigan voters have repeatedly confirmed that the law enjoys broad support. In the latest such poll, conducted by SurveyUSA last month, 74 percent of Michigan voters — including majorities of Republicans, Democrats, and independents — said the law should be left in place. Only 14 percent favored repeal.


There is nothing mysterious about the appeal of right-to-work laws: Of course employees would rather choose for themselves whether to join a union at work, just as they choose for themselves whether to take part in the company’s 401(k) plan or to have some of their wages put into a health savings account. Big Labor has always claimed that compelling workers to kick back part of each paycheck to a union is necessary to prevent “free riders” from enjoying all the advantages of a union contract without paying dues to support the union. But coercing people to pay for representation they don’t want and can’t refuse isn’t an advantage. It’s extortion.

Enacting a right-to-work law turned out to be a boon for Michigan’s economy; repealing it will prove to be the opposite. Not since 1965 has any state that protected its citizens from mandatory unionism turned back the clock on that liberty. Michigan Democrats ought to think twice before doing so, because workers aren’t likely to forget.

Jeff Jacoby can be reached at jeff.jacoby@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @jeff_jacoby. To subscribe to Arguable, his weekly newsletter, visit https://bit.ly/ArguableNewsletter.