Michigan Union Debate & Newtown Shooting

Good evening everybody and welcome to In the News.  Glad you could be with us again today.  It’s been a pretty eventful week.  I wanted to touch on a couple of issues today.  I’d like to start first with Michigan. 

First off we’ll start with Michigan.  As some of you may have heard, last week Michigan passed a couple of very controversial laws that deal with union rights.  The laws revolved around so-called right to work legislation.  Now what is right to work? Let’s take a step back for a moment.

Employees of large companies very often form unions.  And they do this so that all the employees can get together and bargain together as one unit.  This helps their bargaining power and allows them to negotiate for better wages, benefits, workplace conditions etc.

Now to be a member of a union, an employee must pay dues.  These dues go toward a variety of union activities.  Salaries or benefits of union leaders.  Legal representation, legislative lobbying, and political campaigns.  The dues are usually deducted directly from an employee’s paycheck.  Unions find this to be the quickest and most effective ways to collect their dues.

Now if a union has been created at a given company, a person cannot work there without joining that union.  Reason being, if an employer has a choice, they would probably prefer to hire someone who is non-union, because they would be able to pay them less and offer less benefits than they would to a union worker.

So unions in effect, have exclusivity contracts with employers that say they can only hire union workers.  That is basically state law.  Now I should note that this applies only to companies where employees have formed a union.  Obviously if a union does not exist at a company, an employee is not required to join or create one to work there.

Now what Right to Work laws do, is that they say that an employee has the right to choose whether or not they want to join a union.  Right to work says, that choice should be left up to the individual. 

And if the individual sees that the union is such a great value, then they’re free to join that union voluntarily.  And so they make it so that employees are not required to join a union upon accepting a job and are not required to have union dues directly withdrawn from their paychecks. 

Sounds reasonable enough, right?  Sounds very libertarian.  But unions contend that instead of this being a freedom of choice issue, what this really is, is an attack on employee unions.  Unions say that if given the choice, potential employees would choose not to join a union, simply to avoid paying those dues.

Now this leads, unions say, to a free rider problem.  You’ll have employees reaping the benefits of union activity (in terms of pay rate, benefits, etc.) but not helping to cover the costs of those activities.  So this creates as unions point out, an unfair situation.

They say the real goal of right to work laws is to ultimately weaken employee unions.  They say that by attacking its purse strings, right to work basically undermines a union’s ability to function.  As unions sign up less members, and take in less revenue, they engage in fewer activities, and have less influence.  They say the goal of Right to work is to ultimately eliminate labor unions from the workplace, but to do so in a roundabout way.

Proponents of right to work laws of course, deny this.  They argue that they merely want to give employees choice.  They say that if unions really offer a great value, then employees will voluntarily join them.  They say that what this is really about is strengthening worker’s rights and employment.  They contend that right to work laws actually benefit employment in states that have them and therefore are better for employees.

Now, is this true?  Do right to work laws really lead to higher employment in States that have them?  There are currently 23 states with Right to Work legislation on the books.  Michigan is the 24th.  You would think that with that many states to study we would be able to get some answers on the benefits of right to work laws.    

There have been a lot of studies done trying to find the answer to that question.  But the problem is it’s very hard to isolate the effect of right to work laws on a state’s economy and distinguish it from other policies that effect employment, like tax policy, state regulations etc 

What has been shown though, what studies have shown on average, is that RTW laws decrease wages for workers in states that have them.  And interestingly enough for both union and non-union workers alike.  So even if businesses gain more through RTW legislation, it seems that these laws tend to make it so that workers reap less of the benefits of that growth.

Now if RTW legislation was about choice, it would be a no brainer.  And if there was clear cut evidence that it helped employment, it would also make it an easy choice.  But there is no clear evidence of that.  If anything, there seems to be some arguments against those facts.

No, this is about weakening unions.  And that’s not right.  Unions exist for a reason.  And that reason is to make sure corporations treat their people well and do not take unfair advantage of them.  I wonder how many employees would agree to not pay dues and not join a union if it meant that they would be paid less and not receive the same benefits?  How many new employees would accept that deal? 

Unions exist to make sure management shares a fair portion of the profits they help to create with them.  And corporations who are looking for ways to shrink that portion are not thinking correctly.  It’s not only about price.  There’s always going to be places and countries that pay their people less than we do.  That have lower standards of living.  We can’t compete on price alone.  We have to compete on skill, and on innovation, ingenuity and on quality.  And then make sure we’re offering all of those things at a price that is competitive.

In short, we cannot compete in a race to the bottom.  We have to compete in a race to the top.

Before we go I’d like to say a few things about the tragedy in Newtown that happened last Friday.  As most of you know by now, a gunman burst into an elementary in Newtown, CT last Friday armed with a semi automatic rifle and 2 handguns and began shooting indiscriminately.  In total, he killed 20 children, most of whom were 1st graders between the ages of 6 and 7, and 6 school employees including teachers and the principal with no apparent motive. 

Needless to say this was a heart wrenching story to see play out on the news and we as nation are truly heartbroken over it.  Firstly I just want to say that our hearts go out to the people of Newtown.  And our thoughts and prayers are with everyone who was affected by this horrific incident.  It was yet another in a long line of these violent incidents.

I was happy to hear the President say that he would use whatever power his office affords him to help find a solution to this epidemic.  And I was also happy to hear a lot of Congressman say, in the same spirit, that all possible solutions, including gun control laws, need to be on the table.

But I think any possible solution needs to go beyond any one issue.  We have a problem in this country.  Yes it’s a problem with too many guns being too readily available.  But there’s a larger issue.  And that issue is violence.

Violence has become the only way we know how to deal with problems in our society.  And we have to ask ourselves why that is.  Are we not paying enough attention to mental health issues?  And does that cause people who are suffering from mental illness to act out in this way?  Are the messages that we get bombarded with everyday from movies and music and video games having a larger effect than even we realize?

Sure, there will always be disgruntled human beings.  But the frequency and the savagery of these incidents are not natural.  We’ve got to take a long hard look at ourselves and ask, what is it about our society that produces so many of these troubled individuals?  It won’t be an easy question to answer, and we may not even like some of the answers, but there won’t be any real improvement until we do.

That’s our show for this evening.  We thank you for tuning in.  Good night everybody.