As goes Michigan…

This past week, Michigan enacted two new laws to become a ‘right-to-work’ state, in which employees are not required to join a union or pay dues in order to work for a particular employer. The two laws affect public and private employees, and go into effect early next year.

It’s a sad moment for Michigan, and for the country. Michigan is, if not the birthplace of organized labor, one of the places where it gained political traction. For many years, a union industrial job making cars or refining steel or doing any of a thousand other things was a ticket to a comfortable middle-class lifestyle.

Private-sector unions were one of the things that made this country great. They raised wages for working people, broadened the tax base, and improved the lives of millions. And now, in what had been the industrial heartland, they have been cast aside. No, right-to-work laws don’t make unions illegal. But by stripping the requirement of membership and paying dues, they cannot function effectively as the bargaining agent for their members.

And what does Michigan gain as a result? Not much, as far as I can tell. Yes, there will be more jobs available, but at lower wages. If you worked in a Ford plant full-time, years ago, you earned enough to support yourself and your family, buy a house (and pay the property taxes), and treat yourself to vacations and other luxuries. But if you work full-time for Wal-Mart, you might still be eligible for food stamps. This is called ‘externalizing costs.’

But, I hear you cry, what if I don’t like my union’s political views? Then work someplace else. Any employment is necessarily a package deal: you have to take the bad with the good. Other private-sector entities, like corporations, are active in politics to advance their own interests. Why should unions be different?

The race to the bottom continues….

4 thoughts on “As goes Michigan…”

  1. I have a friend who was a union member when he was working, and he felt the union bosses where paid too much. I Think the reason unions have lost respect is because they failed to focus on real economic goals for their members. There are companies that are unionized, and productive. UPS, and Southwest Airlines, for instance. The reason companies have trouble is due to the Founder Effect. Ford is fine because its founder (even though a Nazi) really did see his company as a family. GM, and Chrysler were not founded by such people. Bad ‘founders’ lead to bad employees been hired, and therefore bad union relations. I think unions can survive, but only if they choose to sign up only high quality people who will then (ironically) make unions rather elitist. For instance, if an employer was guaranteed that union employees were much more productive than the average person, they would pay premium wages for those people. It is all about quality. After all, most jobs will be done by robots and computers in the near future, so quality is the only way people can compete.

  2. Even in industries where unions have existed for decades, it has been common to have a two and even three-tier pay structure. Consider the airlines and auto industry as examples of where this shows up.

    What the United Auto Workers have long tried to do is to have a standard contract for their workers regardless of which auto company employed their members. This would tend to mitigate the Founder Effect, both good and bad.

    I was a union member for about three weeks, because I had to join the food service workers’s union after 30 days on the job when I worked in a nursing home kitchen in 1979. I was planning to quit to go back to school, and I must admit that my desire not to do that sort of work again helped a lot to ensure that I finished my degree on time. It was a minimum wage job, and the five cents an hour that I paid in union dues was annoying, It was close to 2% of my pay for what seemed like nothing. I might have had one of the early no-benefits jobs, even though I was working full time.

    I have to ask: productive compared to what? Worker productivity keeps going up even as wages decline.

    I always thought that the political views of unions were summed up by Samuel Gompers’s response when he was asked what his members wanted, and he replied: “More!” The previous owner of my home was a Teamster, and I guess that once an address is on their mailing list, it never gets deleted, because he died ten years ago.

  3. Private-sector unions (public-sector unions are a completely different kettle of fish) helped bring us what we now think of default features of working for an employer, like the 8-hour workday, the 40-hour week, and time-and-a-half for overtime.

    And once these battles were won, what next?

    Perhaps the unions, like the management of, say, GM, grew fat and lazy. Perhaps, no longer having real battles to fight, they became Defenders of Sloth, with nothing real to offer the guy who shows up for work every day prepared to put forth his best effort.

    There are some unions (the building trades and the performing arts) where an individual’s ability to perform is a relevant criterion for membership. But in most industrial settings, employees are selected by management based on nominal qualifications (are you a high school graduate? can you lift 50 lbs?). One can’t say, when hiring someone, whether or not the person will work out as an employee. In that case, it’s management’s responsibility to make the new workers productive, and dismiss those who don’t work out. Management also has the primary responsibility for maintaining the culture of an organization, whether to encourage productivity or sloth.

  4. I am anti union and as far as I’m concerned we need to get rid of most. Yes I realize in the past they were truly needed and changed our society for the better. They allowed people to become middle class and allowed their kids to prosper.

    However, the unions today reward those with bad behavior and overpay these same workers. Case in point: at my former job we had union and non union jobs. Union jobs were mostly entry level unskilled to semi skilled jobs and the non union were all management jobs (almost all required degrees). The union jobs in almost all cases paid way more than they should have, which meant management was underpaid. In other words often a supervisor was paid less than a subordinate. Probably the most overt example was when they were hiring a lawyer and a mail clerk. The lawyer had to have experience with civil law and the mail clerk only had to type 25 wpm and have a diploma or GED. The lawyer job paid $35,000 and the mail clerk $50,000. Not to mention how the union workers would often come in drunk, leave early and come in late and nothing happened usually. However management was fired first chance they got.

    My experiences with union aren’t the only ones in my family. My dad was a garbage truck driver and he was fired though he was in Teamsters. His boss paid off an union boss and my dad was still fired. My grandpa was in management at Ford and one of his jobs was dealing with the union bosses, all of whom were mafia. In Chicago (don’t know anywhere else)most union leaders are mob.

    I wish Illinois would become right to work but I doubt it. This state is way too much in love with the mafia and lazy union workers.

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