For more than a decade, Western Michigan’s food and commercial workers union has been in a defensive crouch after Republicans made union membership optional in a state once synonymous with organized labor. The union shifted from expansion and organizing to just trying to hold down attrition as workers opted out of paying their dues.
On Tuesday, the newly elected Democratic-led State Legislature gave final approval to a bill repealing a so-called right-to-work law. It was the latest in a raft of legislation out of Washington and Democratic state capitals meant to reverse the decline of organized labor and bolster Democratic political strength in elections to come.
But John Cakmakci, president of the United Food & Commercial Workers Union Local 951 in Grand Rapids, warned that a rebound would take time as the state’s labor apparatus relearns how to organize workers and expand. That means the payoff to Democrats could be muted for now.
“Do I think we can rebound? Absolutely,” said Mr. Cakmakci (pronounced Cack-mack-ee). “Are we ready now? No.”
Since 1947, when a conservative Congress passed legislation allowing states to adopt right-to-work legislation, 27 states and the territory of Guam have passed laws or constitutional amendments that give workers the right to opt out of their union dues, even if wages, benefits and work rules at their place of employment are set by a union contract.
The ensuing “free rider” problem — workers’ getting the benefit of representation without paying dues — helped lead to a sharp decline in organized labor, as unions in right-to-work states tried, often in vain, to keep existing members signed up instead of organizing new workplaces. Nationally, union membership last year dropped to 10.1 percent of all workers, half of what the rate was in 1983.
When Michigan’s Democratic governor, Gretchen Whitmer, signs the new legislation in the coming days, Michigan will become the first state in nearly 60 years to roll back the right-to-work rules, fulfilling a campaign promise Democrats made to unions before they swept control of both chambers of the Legislature as well as the governor’s mansion in November.
“No one should be surprised that we are in this moment,” Ms. Whitmer said in an interview. “We’ve done what we’ve said we were going to do, and we’re going to continue to live up to the promise we made to people and live our values.”
But to unions, the damage has been done, after Republicans shocked a state where labor was king and passed right-to-work rules in 2012. Indiana passed the same law that year, and Wisconsin followed suit in 2015 over boisterous protests that led to an unsuccessful recall of the Republican governor, Scott Walker.
Labor Organizing and Union Drives
Union membership in Michigan dropped by almost 93,000, from 16 percent to 13 percent in 2021. Certain sectors were more pronounced. Union membership among government employees dropped to 45 percent from 55 percent, and because the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that government workers cannot be compelled to join a union, Michigan Democrats can do nothing to reverse that slide. Unionization at private employers in Michigan has reached 9.1 percent. The free-rider rate — the number of workers covered by union contracts but not paying union dues — has tripled, to 14 percent from 3.6 percent, weakening union bargaining power and draining union treasuries.
An analysis published last year by the National Bureau of Economic Research, a nonpartisan clearinghouse of academic study, looked at work force trends in the five states that have passed right-to-work laws since 2011 — Indiana, Michigan, Wisconsin, West Virginia and Kentucky. The findings: States with these laws have unionization rates that are 20 percent lower than states without such laws, while wages in right-to-work states are 7.5 percent lower than states where union dues are compulsory for unionized workplaces.
Michigan Republicans who pushed through the labor law a decade ago said crippling the unions was never a goal. They wanted to see the kind of economic dynamism that right-to-work states in the South have shown, as Mercedes, Boeing, Hyundai, B.M.W. and other manufacturers opened plants there. Jase Bolger, a Republican who was Michigan House speaker at the time, said the economic renaissance in Michigan over the past decade was now at risk.
“This was never about hurting unions — it was about empowering workers,” Mr. Bolger said. “Workers are about to have their freedom to choose stripped away from them, and Democrats are underestimating how workers will respond to that.”
The real question might be how the unions respond. Michigan Democrats actually passed two separate repeals — one for the private sector and one for the public sector — knowing the government repeal will not withstand a challenge under a 2018 Supreme Court decision.
“There are going to be people who decide not to pay their fair share,” said David Hecker, president of the American Federation of Teachers local in Michigan. “We know that.”
Ron Bieber, the president of the Michigan A.F.L.-C.I.O., said conditions were ripe for a union comeback. Unemployment is low, the job market is tight and wages are falling behind inflation.
“There’s room to grow,” he said. “There’s always room to grow.”
But the once-mighty United Auto Workers union has been in turmoil. It has been locked in a contested leadership election between the longtime chief, Ray Curry, and an insurgent rank-and-file electrician, Shawn Fain, whose core complaint is that the union has grown lazy in fighting to expand and to demand better wages and benefits.
Marick Masters, a business professor and expert on labor at Wayne State University in Detroit, said the U.A.W. represented less than 20 percent of the automotive work force, which makes up only about half of its total membership. Because electric vehicles take fewer workers on final assembly, the union must organize battery plants and other parts suppliers just to tread water, he said.
“The U.A.W. has to organize,” Mr. Masters said. “I don’t know if it’s ready, but its track record would suggest it’s not.”
Mr. Bieber said the unions that were “fairly devastated” over the past decade were in the service industry, where employees are transient, wages are low and union dues are a difficult pitch.
Mr. Cakmakci with the United Food & Commercial Workers Union in Grand Rapids said his local’s membership had declined to 28,500, from 32,000 before right-to-work. Fifteen percent of workers at unionized shops are not paying their dues. Instead of organizing, union leaders spend their time keeping existing workers signed up, filing paperwork to show dues aren’t being coerced and answering to Republican demands on compliance.
“Their long game was to bankrupt us,” he said. “Their short game was to keep us so busy we can’t organize.”
There have been advantages. The unions have had to prove their value to members, through new benefits like training and education, scholarships and assistance programs.
When dues were compulsory, “we got lazy, as far as I’m concerned, and the fact that Republicans took advantage of that, that’s partly on us,” Mr. Cakmakci said. In the right-to-work era, “the job itself became much harder, but it made our union a lot stronger, mentally, physically and intellectually.”
“I do think we will be putting together an organizing team again,” he added, “but I don’t want to go back to ignoring our members.”
With so many doubts lingering, it is not clear how the labor law’s repeal will help Democrats. Michigan’s Democratic lieutenant governor, Garlin Gilchrist II, said he was not looking for a return.
“We’ve had historic investments in manufacturing, and advanced manufacturing, semiconductor manufacturing in different parts of Michigan,” Mr. Gilchrist said in an interview. “We’re going to continue to build on that foundation, and that’s what the state of Michigan is going to get. It’s really not about what Democrats in the Legislature are going to get.”
Union leaders are more transactional, acknowledging they are getting a return on the investments they made in Democrats last year.
“Not just union members but working people in general are going to see the difference between what it means to have a worker-friendly administration and legislature and the worker-suppression attacks that we had before,” Mr. Bieber said.
Katie Glueck contributed reporting.
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