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Editorial: The Right to Earn Less

It’s one thing to pick a fight with public employee unions in Wisconsin and quite another for Michigan Republicans to take on all of organized labor, as happened with the “right-to-work” legislation that Gov. Rick Snyder signed into law last week. Few states have a stronger union tradition, and the blow to the labor movement there could have ramifications far beyond Michigan’s borders.

Whatever one may think of unions — and they’ve made their share of mistakes as surely as corporate executives have — the decision is certain to depress wages in Michigan. In states where unions can’t require non-union members to pay dues (even as they represent them in contract negotiations or provide other benefits), workers tend to be paid less. They are also less likely to have a pension or employer-provided health care insurance.

It’s not hard to understand why “right to work” is really “right to be paid less.” It’s the same reason nations don’t make taxes optional and businesses don’t typically let customers decide whether to pay for their goods or services. A dues-optional approach cripples the ability of a union to raise money and to look out for the interests of workers.

That is, of course, the point. Over the cries of thousands of angry protesters in Lansing, the GOP-controlled Michigan Legislature meeting in lame-duck session rushed through the legislation, at least in part because legislators recognized that it cuts off a major source of Democratic campaign fundraising. The United Auto Workers alone gave more than $12 million to help re-elect President Barack Obama last month. Small wonder the bill was a high priority for Americans for Prosperity, the conservative advocacy group supported by David and Charles Koch.

This has not been the public justification, of course. Lawmakers claim that right-to-work status will help create jobs, but this is a dubious prospect at best. Indiana joined the right-to-work ranks this year, and there’s been no evidence of job creation whatsoever. In fact, Bureau of Labor Statistics numbers show the state has fewer jobs than one year ago.

Michigan unions aren’t as strong as they’ve been in the past (about 17.5 percent of the state’s work force is unionized, compared to 11.8 percent nationwide), but they’ve also demonstrated far more flexibility in contract negotiations. The resurgence of the auto industry was possible not only because of the financial support offered by Washington but because of concessions the UAW and other unions made to help the industry become competitive again.

What makes the attack on this fundamental union right particularly galling is that the gap between the rich and working class in this country is large and getting bigger. Recent Census data show that household income has grown for the top 20 percent but fallen for the other 80 percent of Americans during the current economic recovery. If a family can’t support itself on the available wages, what happens then? Inevitably, it increases the burden for government safety-net programs such as Medicaid and food stamps.

But aren’t conservatives against expanding those programs? That’s why the attack on unions makes little sense. If the goal is to make Americans more self-sufficient, lowering wages is not the way to accomplish it. Aside from the makers of luxury products, whatever gains employers may make by lower labor costs will hurt them with poorer customers.

It’s too bad that unions have become a scapegoat for the ills of the economy — and that so many living in Michigan and elsewhere seem unaware of the hardships average working people faced in the U.S. before organized labor. And if this can happen in Michigan, cradle of the U.S. labor movement, how far will this latest wave of anti-labor sentiment go?

The Baltimore Sun