Gov. Rick Snyder signed legislation today that made Michigan the 24th right-to-work state. Right-to-work laws prohibit employees from being required to pay union dues, even if the workplace is a union shop.   

Earlier today, union supporters protested outside the state capitol, as Michigan legislators passed two right-to-work bills that would cover both private and public sector employees.

Right-to-work proponents say the bills would give workers the freedom to choose whether or not to pay union dues, and would also bring new businesses and additional jobs to the state. Those opposing the legislation say right-to-work laws are designed to curtail union power by depriving unions of funding.

Lawrence Bates was at the capitol during the protests. He says he’s in favor of right-to-work.

“Freedom plus competition equals dollars or wealth," said Bates. "That's how this country got wealthy in the first place. There's no country in the world that doesn't compete that remains wealthy."

Social worker and union member Sheryl Erickson said that if workers want to opt out of paying union dues, they shouldn't expect to receive the benefits unions fight for.

“Maybe they should work for less money and not have the health care and vacation time and not have the retirement too, if they don’t want to pay to get the benefits,” said Erickson.

Today's vote in Michigan was a milestone in part because Detroit was the birthplace of the United Auto Workers in 1935. Many union supporters in the state credit the UAW for turning low-paying manufacturing work into better-paying middle class jobs.

How do right to work laws play out in other states?

Some  economic studies of right-to-work states indicate that they may attract more jobs, but that wages are lower than in states with stronger unions. Charles Ballard, an economics professor at Michigan State University, says its difficult to determine whether right-to-work is the driving force behind those statistics.He says you have to factor in other variables such as cost of living, economic history and even the weather.

Ballard says that all the focus on right-to-work obscures the fact that vast majority of workers in Michigan and around the country are not union members.

“Right-to-work is a distraction,” said Ballard. “It won't hurt a tremendous amount. We may be able to get a few more low-wage jobs. But the real secret to the prosperity of the future is having a more highly educated workforce."

About the author

Krissy Clark is the senior reporter for Marketplace’s Wealth & Poverty Desk.

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