Michigan Unions: Why Help Workers When We Can Help Ourselves?

Kate Hicks

2/5/2013 12:52:00 PM - Kate Hicks

Following Michigan's adoption of Right to Work legislation, unions, it seems, have decided that their best chance for self-preservation is a good offense...against their own members. The Wall Street Journal reports on a memo revealing that the unions' strategy for combating the law -- which will undoubtedly cost them precious funds, as already-reluctant members opt to quit -- is to target remaining members as they attempt to minimize loss of influence.

That's the message from a December 27-28 memo to local union presidents and board members from Michigan Education Association President Steven Cook, which recommends tactics that unions can use to dilute the impact of the right-to-work law. One bright idea is to renegotiate contracts now to lock teachers into paying union dues after the right-to-work law goes into effect in March. Another is to sue their own members who try to leave.

"Members who indicate they wish to resign membership in March, or whenever, will be told they can only do so in August," Mr. Cook writes in the three-page memo obtained by the West Michigan Policy Forum. "We will use any legal means at our disposal to collect the dues owed under signed membership forms from any members who withhold dues prior to terminating their membership in August for the following fiscal year." Got that, comrade?

Also watch for contract negotiations in which union reps sign up members for smaller pay raises and benefits in exchange for a long-term contract. "We've looked carefully at this and believe the impact of RTW [right to work] can be blunted through bargaining strategies," Mr. Cook writes.

In other words, Michigan unions are going to squeeze every penny out of their members -- even those who wish to defect -- and sacrifice wages and benefits for the sake of obtaining contracts. These practices are notably antithetical to unions' historical objections; organized labor had its genesis when workers needed a forum to gather and combat predatory employer practices, and now here the unions are preying on their own.

Given the failure Wisconsin unions had when they attempted a recall, Michigan unions have ruled out a similar attempt, and the memo further suggests that they don't believe legal action a viable recourse, either. Thus, they're left to cannibalize their own, essentially, thereby making membership even less palatable. It's an example of just how far unions have strayed from their original intent. Now, glutted on the benefits of political clout, they have themselves become distracted by their own gain at the workers' collective sake. What's more, this seems like an ill-conceived survival strategy: in the short term, it may keep the coffers filled to expected levels, but such policies are unlikely to attract new members, and may drive out old members, as they continue to pay dues for little discernible benefit.

What's more, 50% of Michiganders approve of the law, while 45% disapprove. Hardly overwhelming, but notable nonetheless, when considering that Michigan, historically, was the state the UAW built. Half of the population of one of the nation's most union-friendly states doesn't feel that way anymore, and unions are harming their own in order to survive. The outlook is bleak from the unions' perspective, and it's only a matter of time before these chickens, too, come home to roost.