A year later, right-to-work effects tough to measure

Available data too slight to quiet raging debate

Union workers rally outside the Capitol in Lansing, Mich., in this 2012 file photo.
Union workers rally outside the Capitol in Lansing, Mich., in this 2012 file photo.

LANSING — When Michigan became the 24th right-to-work state in December, 2012, conservatives hailed it as a sign the Rust Belt state was “open for business,” union workers decried the law as “union busting,” and labor leaders vowed to use it to quash Republican Gov. Rick Snyder’s re-election bid in 2014.

A year later, the impact of the law remains up for debate.

Conservatives say it has made Michigan more attractive to businesses, but it could take years before the economic benefits can be measured. Unions and Democratic opponents are calling it a failure because unemployment has risen. And in the gubernatorial race, it does not seem to be a central issue — at least not yet.

Michigan's right-to-work law, which bans making union membership a condition of employment, is similar to those in 23 other states. Except for Indiana, which also passed right-to-work legislation last year, laws in the other states have been in effect for years. Michigan stands apart because it is home to the United Auto Workers, the center of the U.S. auto industry, and a swing state in national elections, where worker rights can be a polarizing issue.

“Right-to-work has done none of the things its backers promised,” said Bill Black, Michigan state legal and political chief for Teamsters. “It has not brought better jobs, and it has not helped the people of Michigan.”

But people outside the state are taking another view. Tracy Bosman, a Chicago-based site selection consultant with Biggins Lacy Shapiro & Co., says Michigan’s law has generated interest in the state.

Up to 50 percent of manufacturers automatically screen out any nonright-to-work state, Ms. Bosman said, so Michigan was out of the picture for many firms looking to add production capacity.

“While it does not guarantee success for Michigan, it does at least mean the state will get a second look from firms that automatically excluded it in the past,” she said.

Union leaders say the Michigan law has not hit membership numbers since it took effect in March. Unions have sought to persuade the rank-and-file that membership has value, with targeted marketing that included meeting with members statewide.

“The workers here understand very clearly that right to work means the right to work for less,” said the Teamsters’ Mr. Black. He said that fewer than 100 of the 50,000 workers represented by the Teamsters here have opted out.

Department of Labor figures showing union membership in Michigan for 2013 will not be available until January, and the state itself does not collect such data.

Federal data show Michigan’s union membership is well above the national average of 11.3 percent of the work force.

The 2012 data showed union members made up 16.6 percent of the work force — down from 17.5 percent in 2011, and a significant drop from 21.9 percent in 2003.

Doug Pratt, who is the director of member benefits at the Michigan Education Association, said that through “relentless hard work,” the MEA had lost only 1,500 of its 110,000 members.

Any immediate effect on Michigan’s unemployment rate is difficult to determine.

Michigan’s unemployment rate ticked up a fraction, to 9 percent in October from 8.9 percent last December. The national rate fell to 7 percent during that time, from 7.8 percent when the law was passed.

The Michigan Economic Development Corporation, a state-funded group, said new-business investment has jumped during that period, up 33 percent in 12 months since the law passed, to about $1.6 billion.

The announced investments would create 9,400 jobs, up from about 6,700 in the year before passage.

Even so, supporters of the law acknowledge too little data exist to make a case either way.

“There is no way to empirically measure the economic impact of right-to-work because the data is not available,” said Michael LaFaive, who is a director of policy at the Mackinac Center, a conservative think tank.

“It will take a good 10 years of data to do that,” Mr. LaFaive said.