Michigan gave birth to the United Auto Workers. The union was founded at a convention in Detroit in 1935. After its famous sit-down strike in Flint, Mich., in 1937, the UAW won recognition by General Motors and, in the next several years, by Chrysler and Ford. It was the advent of an era of industrial unionization that is coming to a symbolic end in the same place it started.
Michigan passed the kind of "right to work" law that is anathema to unions everywhere and is associated with the red states of the Sun Belt, not the blue states of the Rust Belt. To say that such a development is stunning is almost an understatement. Michigan is to unionization what Florida is to sand, Texas is to oil and Alaska is to grizzly bears. The union model hasn't just been central to its economy, but to its very identity.
At its inception, UAW officials got roughed up by company thugs at the famous "Battle of the Overpass," when Ford was still resisting signing a contract with the union. Some 70 years later, the union movement is getting undone by simple economic realities.
The effect of right-to-work laws, which permit employees to work at unionized companies without joining the union and paying mandatory dues, is hard to pin down precisely because so many other factors affect a state's economic condition. But Michigan was undergoing a real-world experiment in the merits of forced unionization versus right-to-work after neighboring Indiana adopted a right-to-work law earlier this year, the first Rust Belt state to do so.
The early returns weren't encouraging. The Mackinac Center, a free-market Michigan think tank, reports that Indiana added 43,300 jobs 13,900 of them in manufacturing while Michigan shed 7,300 jobs. Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder, a Republican reformer but not a bomb thrower, says seeing 90 companies from around the country decide to settle in Indiana after the labor change influenced his willingness to sign a bill doing the same thing.
One study, by a University of Minnesota economist, looked at states bordering one another with and without right-to-work laws. It found "an abrupt change" when crossing the border into a right-to-work state, and "that manufacturing's share of total employment increases about one-third."
Michigan has already been losing out to right-to-work states without having one on its border. Shikha Dalmia of Reason magazine points out that, with the exception of a brief foray by Mazda, no foreign automaker has set up shop in Michigan, despite the state's pool of experienced autoworkers. It is hard to be a manufacturing state specializing in autos if you can't attract new automakers.
Election Day in Michigan brought a stark illustration of the declining political power of the unions when they failed to pass an amendment to the state's constitution banning right-to-work. More Michiganders voted "no" on the amendment, the Mackinac Center notes, than voted for President Barack Obama. The failure emboldened the Republican-held legislature to push ahead on a right-to-work measure now enshrined in law.
The unions so fear right-to-work laws because mandatory dues are such a boon to them. There's nothing like forcing people to belong to your organization to boost the membership rolls and the treasury. In one month in 2011 after Gov. Scott Walker ended mandatory dues for public-sector unions in Wisconsin, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees shed half its members, according to The Wall Street Journal.
Decline had already been the order of the day for the union movement. In 1983, the unionization rate for the American workforce was 20.1 percent. In 2011, it was 11.8 percent, and only 6.9 percent in the private sector. Right-to-work prevailing in Michigan represents a new bottom. So many decades after they, in effect, won the Battle of the Overpass, the unions are losing the Battle of Lansing.