The debate over right to work in Michigan has overlooked a significant fact. Popular perception is of Big Labor at big corporations – but, in fact, only a small minority of the private sector remains unionized. Only 11.3 percent of wage and salary workers in the U.S. are unionized. The percentage of unionized private sector workers is only 6.6 percent.
Union membership is on the decline.
As recently as 1983 union membership was over 20 percent – totaling 17.7 million union workers. Today, there are only 14.4 million. In today’s economy right to work legislation is really directed at public employee unions. Nationally, the public sector unionization rate of 36 percent is more than five times higher than the private sector. More than half of union members belong to public sector unions.
Though it is relatively highly unionized, Michigan’s picture is much the same. Michigan’s private sector union employment is 11.4 – nearly double the national rate – while public sector unionization is 54.3 percent, also well above the national rate. Nonetheless, less than one in nine private sector Michigan workers are unionized.
The state’s private-sector union employment has matched the national historical trend as the expansion of the market economy world-wide has forced out the private-sector union model. Michigan had more than 758,000 private sector union members in 1983. By 2012 this number had fallen to 389,000 (public employee union membership has declined less – from 326,370 in 1983 to 253,635 in 2012.) Given that the private sector is only marginally unionized, and the market is moving the economy further in that direction, the largest effect of right to work will be on the public sector.
Michigan’s legislation effectively eliminates the requirement that public sector employees pay union dues as a condition of employment. Thus, a major effect of right to work will be to dampen the ability of the state’s public sector unions to raise funds for their political action committees.
Public employee unions use dues money to influence elected officials with whom they bargain for salary and benefits. This puts the union officials at an advantage – and the taxpayer at a disadvantage. This has been an overlooked reason to support right to work.
There has been significant discussion about the effect of right to work on state economic growth – particularly as it effects private sector union membership. It will be of great interest, too, to see how the new law affects the ability of public employee unions to effect state policy and local government spending. That may have a larger effect on state economic growth – and fiscal soundness – in the long run than the law’s effect on the private sector.