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Stockwell: ‘Right to work’ has only made Michigan weaker

Stockwell: ‘Right to work’ has only made Michigan weaker

Douglas Stockwell

Ten years ago, the Republican-controlled Michigan Legislature, backed by then-Gov. Rick Snyder, rammed through a so-called “right-to-work” law in a lame duck session. They did it without public input or support, because they were never doing it to help working Michigan residents. Legislators pushed this anti-worker bill to benefit billionaire donors. “Right to work” was never about jobs, the economy or freedom but about keeping workers down to raise donors up and killing off the best ally workers have — their unions.

We now have the chance to reverse this injustice, and we must do it now.

Union representation and collective bargaining are the greatest protections employees have at their disposal. Through unions, workers can negotiate fair wages, better benefits and safer working conditions. Collective bargaining has proven time and again to be the greatest way to ensure workplace equity and protect against racism and sexism in employer conduct. A union is the best way for workers to protect their livelihoods, their families’ futures and themselves.

That is why the federal government has codified workers’ right to unionize for almost 100 years, and why a recent Gallup poll showed 71% of Americans now favor unions, the highest rate in more than 50 years.

Aiming to weaken and even eliminate unions, so-called “right-to-work” laws are popular among corporate special interests, who balk that union employees earn 19% more than their non-union counterparts, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
In the construction industry that operating engineers work in, a recent Illinois Economic Policy Institute report found that union worksites are 19% less likely to violate Occupational Safety and Health Administration rules and had 34% fewer violations per OSHA inspection than non-union worksites.

Those corporate special interests don’t like workers having contracts that guarantee fair treatment and wages. They don’t like employers being held accountable for safety. So, they lobby for laws that allow and encourage workers to opt out of their union dues and membership.

Under federal law, a union must still represent a worker, even if that worker has opted not to pay union dues in a so-called “right-to-work” state. That means that the worker benefits from all of the often-expensive work a union does to represent them without contributing. These corporate special interests’ goal seems to be: financially cripple unions so they won’t be able to provide quality representation for workers. Their hope may be that workers will leave unions, weakening them until unions disappear altogether, leaving workers without an advocate and at the mercy of employers.

Imagine a business trying to join a chamber of commerce, refusing to pay membership dues, yet expecting all the benefits and perks a dues-paying member gets. That chamber would fold, which is why that would never happen. Yet this is exactly what “right-to-work” laws force on unions.

Now, groups like the Mackinac Center cite statistics showing how Michigan’s economic recovery seemingly occurred alongside the passage of “right-to-work” laws. These statistics are misleading. In 2012, Michigan was climbing out of the worst recession in modern times. The automakers had declared bankruptcy. Detroit was in receivership. In our state’s lowest moment, Michigan had no place to go but up.

We have made a great recovery since then, due in large part to the leadership we’ve had these past four years. Equating that recovery to the stifling of worker voices is not only wrong, but also offensive. The real question that should be asked is how much better Michigan’s economy might be today if Michigan had never become a “right-to-work” state in the first place.

For a decade, anti-worker laws have held our state back. Now is the time to restore real rights to Michigan workers — the right to collectively bargain and not have their voices, or their unions, weakened by politicians and special interests — because “right to work” is the failure the public has always known it to be.

Douglas Stockwell is the business manager and general vice president of Operating Engineers 324.