While Michigan Governor Rick Snyder was never exactly beloved by all, voters liked him a lot more before last week. That’s when Snyder signed legislation radically undercutting the state’s labor unions – a so-called “right-to-work” law – that he had previously insisted was “too divisive” to enact. Today, a new poll shows Snyder’s popularity has plummeted 28 points making him one of the least popular sitting governors in the nation. No one seems to doubt that the anti-union law is the cause of his abrupt fall from grace.
But if Governor Snyder isn’t benefitting from his surprise legislative power play, who is? Snyder and the bill’s other backers like to claim that weakening unions will help attract jobs and grow the economy, but this doesn’t pass the laugh test. A look at states’ unemployment rates, per capita income, and rates of job growth reveals no correlation with so-called “right to work” (RTW) laws. Furthermore, finds University of Oregon professor Gordon Lafer, there is no evidence that RTW laws affect companies’ siting decisions. Even the law’s name is a cynical absurdity, as economist Dean Baker points out in a recent op-ed.
In fact, RTW laws reliably offer states a very negative set of outcomes. As I wrote when Indiana passed a similar law in January, “right to work” is a formula for shrinking paychecks. By making it harder for unions to collect the dues that enable them to function, RTW undermines the ability of both union and non-union workers to get a fair deal in the workplace. The average full-time, full-year worker in a RTW state earns about $1,500 less each year than a similar worker in a non-right to work state, according to a study by economists Elise Gould and Heidi Shierholz. The laws also leave workers less likely to get health insurance or pensions through their jobs.
But if Governor Snyder has alienated voters and undercut his state’s workforce, he hasn’t disappointed everyone. As many commentators have noted, undermining unions looks like a savvy piece of political gamesmanship for the Republican Party, since weakening organized labor damages a major source of Democratic Party funding and organizational support.
At the same time, the folks at the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC)– the same outfit that worked to spread Florida-style “stand your ground” gun laws to other states – are surely delighted that their model anti-union legislation was copied so faithfully by Michigan legislators.
The corporate interests behind ALEC are celebrating too: for the big business lobby, RTW is an effort to not only lower wages and get a cheaper workforce but also weaken a political foe that has been the most effective force opposing them on a range of issues, from the privatization of education to Wall Street reform, as well as more traditional workplace issues like raising the minimum wage. Corporate-backed efforts to push anti-union laws in Michigan, Indiana, Ohio and Wisconsin are no accident. What’s more, the attack comes at a time when, as Paul Krugman recently wrote, “profits have surged as a share of national income, while wages and other labor compensation are down. The pie isn’t growing the way it should — but capital is doing fine by grabbing an ever-larger slice, at labor’s expense.” Anti-union laws are one way to reinforce that trend.
The symbolism of a high-profile blow to unions in a state so central to the labor movement’s birth cannot be overstated. But there are also reasons to hope for a labor resurgence: as I’ve been documenting this year, the nation has also seen an upsurge in workplace organizing by low-wage employees. In Chicago, the teacher’s union won its high-profile strike this year with bottom-up leadership and deep public support. And when voters across the country were asked to weigh in directly on measures to raise workplace standards and preserve rights on the job, working people mostly came out the winners. In Michigan itself, Governor Snyder can only hope that the voters who disdain him today will forget his betrayal by the next election.