One Year Later, Impact of 'Right-to-Work' on MI’s Private Sector Unions Is Minimal

MI RTW Protest

For Michigan unions, the one year anniversary of the implementation of “Right-to-Work” is fast approaching, yet for many shops the effects have been minimal.  A recent piece on MiBiz.com reveals how recruiting methods have allowed some unions to bring in younger workers, most of whom are happy to enter the union, to replace outgoing retirees.  Stories of union members opting out do exist, but many construction locals have placed a renewed emphasis on their apprenticeship programs and benefited as a result.

Ryan Bennett, business agent for the West Michigan Plumbers, Fitters and Service Trades Local Union No. 174, told MiBiz.com flatout: “Right to Work isn’t going to be an issue for us.”

The unions who understood the inevitability of “Right-to-Work” signed into major contracts before it was implemented.  Because of this, they currently have a full workload and happy members. Still, “Right-to-Work” has created a divide among public and private sector unions.  The effect of the legislation has been much harsher for public employees.

Unions living under Right to Work have been focused on getting new contracts in place, thus immunizing themselves from the provisions in the law for at least the next few years, said Pat White, chair of the labor and employment group at Varnum LLP.

“The major effect that Right to Work had really was a flurry of union activity attempting to get new agreements in under the wire so that they would be grandfathered,” White said. “Some unions really didn’t care.”

While some skilled trade unions say they won’t be affected by Right to Work, the same is not necessarily true of their public-sector counterparts, particularly school teachers, White said. Teachers have historically felt secure about their positions because the state and local communities use tax dollars to fund schools, he said.

With those dollars not flowing as freely as they once did, teachers see some of that perception of security diminishing, White said.

Meanwhile, private-sector unions out of self-preservation have begun to embrace the notion that they must make some concessions — more so than their public-sector counterparts — so that businesses remain viable and stay in Michigan, White said.

“In the private sector, they were getting the idea that they had to keep the unionized businesses in business or else we all suffer out of this because our workers here in Michigan aren’t likely to get re-employed if a successor comes in and takes over the business. (The jobs) were likely leaving the state and maybe leaving the country,” White said. “Public sector (unions) didn’t have that kind of pressure.”

Emphasizing the benefits of membership and planning ahead enabled private sector unions to emerge from “Right-to-Work” relatively unscathed. Decent wages have been assured and thus the ability to attract new workers has been preserved.

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