Michigan’s two right-to-work laws became effective on March 28, and have likely left many wondering how they impact their own workplaces and what effect they will have on union membership in the future. Essentially, the laws prohibit “union security clauses” from being agreed upon by unions and employers. Union security clauses require individual employees covered by a collective bargaining agreement to join a labor union and pay union dues, or other fees to a union, in order to become and remain employed. Prior to the laws’ implementation, employers and unions in Michigan were legally able to negotiate union security clauses. Under the right-to-work laws, these types of agreements are no longer allowed in Michigan and will be deemed unenforceable…eventually.
First, if there is currently no union representing the employees at your workplace, the laws have no effect on you. They only impact unionized workplaces and the agreements made between the employer and the union. Secondly, if a union does represent employees at your workplace and there is an existing collective bargaining agreement that contained a union security clause on March 28, the laws will not impact your collective bargaining agreement until it expires. The terms of that agreement will remain the same until it expires or is otherwise changed by the parties. In fact, many employers and unions in the state quickly negotiated new agreements prior to the laws’ effective date, in order to extend the amount of time that such clauses would remain valid. Some employers have even entered into side agreements that extend the union security provisions for up to ten years. At least one lawsuit has been filed challenging this type of side agreement.
The laws’ true impact on unionization will not be seen for many years, as collective bargaining agreements expire and more and more unionized workplaces are prohibited from requiring employees to join the union and pay union dues. In workplaces that have a long and established history of being unionized, a mass exodus from the union is not likely to occur when the employees are no longer subject to the union security clause. Furthermore, as the birthplace of the modern-day American labor movement, employees in Michigan tend to support unions on a philosophical basis much more than their counterparts in other right-to-work states. Thus, these long unionized workplaces in Michigan will continue to see union support among existing employees with only a small percentage of employees actually resigning from the union.
However, as new employees who do not have a history of working in unionized facilities and who may not “believe in” unions on a philosophical basis are hired into these workplaces, fewer and fewer of them will voluntarily join the union. Additionally, in recent years many employers and unions have negotiated two-tier wage scales which pay new employees less than existing employees for the same work. As a result, many new employees will see less benefit to union membership, and may even view the union with hostility. Such a sentiment serves as an additional disincentive for new employees to join a union. Over time, as these new employees replace long-term employees who have reaped union benefits for decades, the rate of dues-paying members will certainly decrease, unless unions are able to adjust their operating model in a way that is attractive to new employees.