NEAL CONAN, HOST:
This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.
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CONAN: That was the scene this morning outside the Michigan statehouse in Lansing as activists protested the legislature's work on two bills to rewrite the state's labor laws and make Michigan the 24th state in the country to become a right to work state. Rick Pluta, the managing editor and statehouse bureau chief for Michigan Public Radio Network, joins us now by phone from the statehouse. Nice to have you on the program today.
RICK PLUTA, BYLINE: Longtime listener, first-time caller. It's my pleasure.
CONAN: What's the latest, Rick?
PLUTA: Well, the statehouse just voted to send both of the bills to Governor Rick Snyder, who after two years of saying this is really something he'd like not to see land on his desk, that the issue is just too divisive, said that he will sign them.
And in one sense, what he said about it being divisive, it seems to be prophetic, at least in terms of today. We've got 10,000, 12,000 protestors inside, outside the state capitol. There are reports that at this moment it's getting a lot messier out there, that people are very angry. We've got state police and local police departments from many parts of Michigan here, many of them in riot gear, some of them on horseback trying to push back the protestors after this vote.
CONAN: And was this vote strictly along party lines?
PLUTA: There were a few Republicans, very few Republicans, who defected from their party, but all the Democrats voted against it, that this is just seen as, you know, literally an attack on unions and on the political authority here in Michigan of the Democratic Party.
CONAN: And all of this blew up since election day.
PLUTA: Yeah, that - that unions, after suffering through a couple of years of what they saw as a series of anti-labor legislation in our Republican-dominant legislature, and we have a Republican governor who used to be a businessperson, felt like they wanted to do something. And so what they came up with was Proposal 2, a ballot question that would enshrine collective bargaining rights in the state constitution (clears throat) - excuse me.
But it also did a whole lot more. It would have rolled back 170 laws. Some of them dealt with things like the safety of schoolchildren. And so there was a very effective campaign mounted against that, and the proposal went down in defeat. And for some supporters of right to work in Michigan, they thought that that was their opening to get it done, that - I'm sorry?
CONAN: I was just going to say, in particular because the next legislature, the one that was elected on November 6, may not be as positive towards right to work.
PLUTA: Well, it will not be. Right now the Republicans have very substantial majorities in the House and the Senate. They will still have majorities next year, but in the statehouse there will be five fewer Republicans because they kind of took a thumping here on election day, not to mention because Michigan is a term-limit state that there are a few Republicans who are on their way out the door who can cast these votes without really worrying about what it means for their political future.
So this was really - they really - you know, the right to work supporters really saw this as their window.
CONAN: And there's also another bill in Wisconsin. People will remember recall elections were staged against legislatures - legislators who voted for anti-union bills. Well, the Michigan legislators thought about that.
PLUTA: Yeah, as a matter of fact, unions say that one of the things they're going to do is they're going to target some legislators, at least those who are in vulnerable districts or sort of middle-of-the-road districts. They say some of them may be targeted for recall.
There's also talk of trying to recall Governor Rick Snyder, although I should point out that Michigan's laws for recalling statewide officials raise the bar a little bit higher than what existed in Wisconsin, where, you know, unions and Democrats tried to recall Governor Scott Walker.
CONAN: In the meantime, this seems to be set to Issue A in Michigan for the foreseeable future.
PLUTA: This certainly seems to have catapulted to the top of the pile in terms of political issues, yes.
CONAN: And some people say if this can happen in Michigan, the home of the United Auto Workers Union, the most unionized state in the union, it can happen anywhere.
PLUTA: Yeah, the cradle of the labor movement. As a matter of fact, we're coming up on December 30, the 76th anniversary of the Flint sit-down strikes that really launched the United Auto Workers as a bargaining power. And some of the Democrats who voted against this today in the legislature had, you know, grandparents, great-grandparents, who were sit-down strikers, who were sort of, you know, revered here in Michigan in many quarters.
CONAN: It should be pointed out there's a couple of exemptions. Existing contracts, as I understand it, will not be affected.
PLUTA: It is not - it is unconstitutional to abrogate an existing contract, and so, for example, the Ford contract runs, I think, until September of 2015. So you know, right to work won't be affecting that company until then. And there are also exemptions for police unions and firefighter unions, and that conceivably could be the subject of a legal challenge, that unions are looking at going to court and filing an equal protection lawsuit against this law based on that.
CONAN: We will stay tuned. Rick Pluta, we'll let you get back to work.
PLUTA: OK, thanks.
CONAN: Rick Pluta from the Michigan statehouse in Lansing. He's the bureau chief for Michigan Public Radio Network. Though Michigan would be the 24th state to pass right to work legislation, only three states have done so in recent memory: Indiana, Oklahoma and Idaho.
So we'd like to hear from listeners in this states. What difference does it make? If you live in Indiana, Oklahoma, Idaho, we want to hear from you. After right to work legislation passed, what changed in your life? Give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email us, email@example.com. Gerry Dick is creator and host of "Inside Indiana Business with Gerry Dick," which airs on many platforms in the state, both commercial and public, and he joins us now from member station WFYI in Indianapolis. Good to have you with us today.
GERRY DICK, BYLINE: Thank you, Neal.
CONAN: And what difference has the right to work legislation that passed Indiana, what, 10 months ago, made there?
DICK: Yeah, it really is - I think it's fair to say that it's too soon to really tell a difference, Neal, on any impacts. Certainly organized labor has contended, as they are in Michigan, that right to work will mean lower wages, lower benefits, decrease in safety, those types of things. If in fact those things are to happen, it would take time for that to play out.
I will say that economic developers around the state are talking about an increased number of calls from companies who say with right to work now on the books here in Indiana, that that has opened the state to be in the running for economic development investments. So we'll see how that plays out.
Economic developers have always said, look, this will give you state more at-bats, if you will, to compete for economic development projects. Those thoughtful people who really think about this issue, and those who are in the business, know that right to work is not the issue, typically, that a company would choose to locate in a particular state, but one of several factors that could potentially come into play.
CONAN: Sure, transportation for their particular product and the cost of living for their workers.
DICK: Yeah, absolutely, it's a whole host of things. If you're in a state that isn't very competitive with infrastructure and those types of things, you're probably not going to get a good look anyway. But in those states that are competitive - and I think you can put Indiana certainly in that ballpark - right to work, in terms of supporters they say right to work gives Indiana a leg up on some projects.
CONAN: President Obama said yesterday outside of Detroit, in advance of today's vote in Lansing, he said that he doesn't see these laws as being about economics at all but rather about politics. I wonder how that's playing out in Indiana.
DICK: Well, certainly a very, very volatile political issue, and I heard the previous report from Michigan talking about the governor there not wanting to pursue this because it is such a divisive issue. Interesting that Governor Mitch Daniels, who will soon be ending his second term and leaving to become the president of Perdue University, he basically had the same, you know, commentary for the last several sessions, saying, hey - he did not want this to happen because he knew how volatile, how very contentious the issue certainly is.
And that was the case this year at the Indiana statehouse, very similar scenes to what you're seeing in Michigan, what you saw in Wisconsin. I know that was a different deal with public sector unions, but thousands and thousands of union workers and supporters rallying and converging on the statehouse here in Indiana.
And in fact, from a political standpoint, it even prompted House Democrats here to walk out. They walked out, drove across the state lines to Illinois and really for several weeks held the legislature for the most part pretty much at a standstill.
CONAN: Has there been any impact, well, since - in the election that has occurred since then?
DICK: Actually, Republican - the Republican majorities in Indiana have actually strengthened, and now there is a so-called supermajority in both the House and the Senate here in the Indiana legislature, and Governor Mitch Daniels, who will be leaving, a Republican; the governor-elect, Mike Pence, is also a Republican. So actually in terms of - the majority Republicans feel, I think, perhaps a bit emboldened because their majorities have actually increased in this last election.
CONAN: And as you say, it's too early to gauge the effect on wages, or working conditions for that matter. It's a little too early to gauge whether new businesses will actually move to Indiana. But what about union membership? Has that been measured?
DICK: Well, that's - not specifically in Indiana, but I think anecdotally and generally you can talk about the decrease in union membership in states like Indiana, just a function in large part of traditional American manufacturing going away. A community like Anderson, Indiana, which at one time had some 25,000 General Motors workers, today they have zero.
And you look at other auto industry towns around the state that have shrunk in size. That alone has made for a reduction in union membership, and that's why - one of the reasons, I think, why this is such a very volatile issue, because organized labor looks at this and looks at a state in the Midwest, in the Rust Belt, the so-called Rust Belt, of Indiana, becoming right to work.
Now with Michigan with that possibility, they see that as a real threat to their ultimate survival.
CONAN: And you mentioned the political controversy in Wisconsin. Again, that was over public sector employees. There was similar controversies in Ohio as well. It does look like this issue is not going away anytime soon in that part of the country.
DICK: Yeah, no question about it, and it still remains a very, very contentious issue. And as you look at politically here in this state, one of the things it did, really the acrimony between parties, which, you know, the parties always have their rivalries, but it really exacerbated that situation.
I think it remains today. But we shall see in terms of that ultimate impact here in the state of Indiana. We'll see as it plays out.
CONAN: Gerry Dick, thanks very much.
DICK: Thank you, Neal.
CONAN: Gerry Dick, creator and host of "Inside Indiana Business with Gerry Dick." He joined us today from member station WFYI in Indianapolis. So if you're in one of those states that gone right to work in more recent memory - Idaho, Oklahoma and Indiana - we want to hear from you. If you're listening in Muncie, Boise or Norman, what changed to your life after right to work legislation passed? 800-989-8255. Email us, firstname.lastname@example.org. Stay with us. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
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CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan. Earlier this afternoon, the Michigan Legislature approved two measures that would make the state the country's 24th right-to-work state. Governor Rick Snyder says he'll sign the plan into law, perhaps as early as tomorrow.
Indiana also became a right-to-work state earlier this year. Oklahoma and Idaho are the only other two states to have done so in recent memory. Most of the other states with this sort of legislation passed it in the 1940s. Today we're interested in hearing from states where it's been a recent change: Oklahoma, Idaho, Indiana. If you live in one of those states, how did your life change after right-to-work legislation passed?
800-989-8255. Email email@example.com. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION. Though the laws vary slightly, 23 states make it illegal for employers to require union membership and dues as a condition of employment. Joining us now to talk about what impact that can have are Michael Kazin and James Sherk.
Michael Kazin, history professor at Georgetown University, co-editor of Dissent Magazine, author of "American Dreamers: How the Left Changed the Nation." He joins us from his home in Chevy Chase in Maryland. Nice to have you back on TALK OF THE NATION.
MICHAEL KAZIN: Nice to be here, Neal.
CONAN: And James Sherk is senior policy analyst in labor economics at the Heritage Foundation. He joins us from a studio there. Good to speak with you today.
JAMES SHERK: Thank you.
CONAN: And let me start with James Sherk. What difference does it make when this legislation passes?
SHERK: Well, the main effect it has on workers is that for them union dues becomes voluntary. They're not going to be forced to spend dues, which average between $600 and $900 a year, to give that to the union as a condition of, you know, teaching in a public school or as a condition of working in a factory, which is what the union contracts typically call for.
Now what that does is it has an effect, obviously, on union income, and union organizers become a lot less aggressive in right-to-work states. Union organizing attempts drop about 50 percent because if you can't force the workers to pay the dues, there's just less money on the table.
And with the less aggressive union organizers, the state becomes more attractive for businesses and investors, and you see an increase in manufacturing employment by about one-fifth to one-third is what the studies find.
So it'll have an immediate effect on the workers, but it'll in the long term make Michigan a much more attractive place for businesses to locate and lead to more jobs being created.
CONAN: Could you point to an example in a state with a right-to-work law where that's been operative?
SHERK: Well, nationwide, the right-to-work states have unemployment that's sevent-tenths of a percentage point lower than the unemployment rate in non-right-to-work states. But there's a really good study that was done about a decade or so ago, where there was a researcher who compared counties that bordered each other across a state line.
So you've got the same workforce, the same regional economy, the same local economic conditions. The only thing that's different is one county was on the right-to-work side of a border, and the other county was on the non-right-to-work side of the border.
And he found that manufacturing employment was one-fifth to one-third higher in those counties that were on the same - on the right-to-work side than on the non-right-to-work side. And that's very strongly suggestive that the right-to-work law was the cause of that because everything else, you've got, you know, the same population, the same regional...
CONAN: I happened to read that study. He had some problems - the author had some problems with his own methodology. But I get your point in general. Michael Kazin, let me ask you: What difference from your vantage point do right-to-work laws make?
KAZIN: Well, we can talk about studies, you know, all day long and how good they are. You know, one of the things that's pretty clear I think is that the states that have been right-to-work the longest are also very poor states, mostly in the Deep South, some in the Mountain West.
And basically when unions are weak, which they almost always are when you have so-called right-to-work laws because people can get something for nothing, and so they're not really - there's no real reason for them to pay the dues, then you have a race to the bottom. And unemployment might be high, but the wages are low, job security is not very good, the education system is not very good in those states.
So, you know, basically you have an acceleration of what's been happening in this country for the last 30 years as unions have gotten weaker. You've got increasing wage gap, and corporations pretty much are able to do what they want. It makes sense that a corporation would move across the border from a non-right-to-work state to a right-to-work state because obviously the wages are going to be lower.
CONAN: Let's get some callers in on the conversation, 800-989-8255. Email firstname.lastname@example.org. Don's(ph) with us from Elkhart, Indiana.
DON: Good afternoon, how are you?
CONAN: I'm well, thank you.
DON: My comment had to do with the fact that Mitch Daniels, when he came into office, got rid of basically the state union ability, and I think overall the effect has been that public service is basically provided the same as it always has been, but Indiana is a very fiscally sound state. You know, I'm going to rely - I'm a public employee, and I'm going to rely on public employee retirement funds that I know in Indiana are very, very solvent as opposed to a place like Illinois, our neighbor, where if I worked there, I think I'd be very concerned that I would ever get, you know, a dollar on a dollar on my retirement.
CONAN: Just because the promises are far greater than their ability to pay out.
DON: Exactly, so I think even though I'm not a member of a union, and I work for, you know, the public service here in Elkhart, and I did work for the state for a while, the tradeoff for me has been I'm just confident that I'm going to have employment. I'm not making a ton of money, but when I retire I think the money's going to be there.
CONAN: All right, Don, thanks very much for the call.
DON: Yeah, I appreciate it.
CONAN: And let's see if we can go next to - this is Frank(ph), and Frank's on the line with us from Tulsa.
FRANK: Hi, good afternoon.
CONAN: Good afternoon, Frank.
FRANK: You know, Oklahoma passed right-to-work 10 years ago, and we've not seen the changes that those who promised right-to-work, like the gentleman from the Heritage Foundation said would be. You know, wages are stagnant, workplace conditions are worse than ever. Businesses and corporations are more emboldened to treat employees unfairly, and wages have declined.
FRANK: Wages in Oklahoma have declined since right-to-work. It's not been the be-all and end-all that has been promised.
CONAN: And what business do you work in?
FRANK: I'm an attorney that represents labor unions.
CONAN: And has their membership gone down?
FRANK: Their membership has gone down some, not greatly, not like those who supported it and were behind it had hoped. There has been a net loss in members, though.
CONAN: James Sherk - thank you very much for the call, Frank, appreciate it.
FRANK: You bet.
CONAN: James Sherk, I wanted to ask you, I'm not familiar with the numbers in Oklahoma. That state of course has benefitted tremendously from its oil business in recent years, and there's a lot of construction in the state of Oklahoma, as well. Is our caller correct?
SHERK: Well again, you've got to take a look at what's going on to manufacturing nationwide. In the past decade, manufacturing in right-to-work states and in non-right-to-work states has fallen. But it's fallen faster in the non-right-to-work states. Manufacturing employment dropped by about three percent a year in the non-right-to-work states versus only about 1.7 percent a year in the right-to-work states.
And so certainly it's not a be-all, end-all. Certainly there's broader global and technological issues that are affecting manufacturing, and who would argue that it's a solution to all the states' economic problems. But does it help? Yes. Does it attract investment? Yes. We have seen an increase in foreign investment into Oklahoma.
And I think they're better off today than they would have been had they not passed it.
CONAN: Michael Kazin, as you listen to those callers with very different concerns, certainly the problem with public employee pensions is not limited to Illinois, as our caller said, and Indiana, though, is one of the very few states that seems solvent.
KAZIN: That's probably true, but of course a lot of this depends on the taxation in the given state. There's a lot more corruption in Illinois, I believe, as well. I don't think that has much to do with unions or with a lack of union strength. You know, I don't know enough about the comparative economies of Illinois and Indiana to make a comment on that.
But I do want to say that I think, you know, the reason why unions - people who support unions, the way I do, think that right-to-work is the wrong idea is because is it's what sociologists call the free rider problem, that is there's no requirement in any states, including non-right-to-work states, for anybody to join a union.
The only requirement, and Mr. Sherk knows this very well, is that it's called agency rights, that is if a union has a contract in a given workplace, then you have to pay union fees, you have to pay - you go to pay in to the institution which has won those benefits for you.
And that just seems pure justice, you know, to a lot of people, I think. And obviously to people who are demonstrating today in Lansing...
CONAN: So people getting the benefit of the unions' bargaining without having to pay to support the union.
KAZIN: Exactly. I mean, in some ways it's like Social Security. I mean, we have to pay a payroll tax if you want to get Social Security in the end, and most of us are quite happy to get Social Security. But if you say, well, you can get Social Security, but you can decide for yourself. You have the freedom to decide whether to pay that payroll tax or not. I think we'd say that was a little bit crazy.
CONAN: James Sherk?
SHERK: The problem is that union contracts benefit some workers at the expense of others. Consider a high-performing worker. Well, the seniority system is actually holding him back. He could be - get a raise faster than what the unions negotiated for him, or seniority-based layoffs, with the new hires are going to be first on the chopping block to get laid off. They don't benefit from a union contract, but the union is insisting that, you know, they pay for it anyway.
I mean unions could - the Supreme Court has recognized repeatedly the right of unions to negotiate members-only contracts that only cover their members. So they could say, all right, we'll negotiate for our members. You guys do your own thing. They don't do that. They voluntarily choose to represent everyone in the workforce - precisely because they want those new hires to be forced into the seniority system so they get laid off first and the more senior union members don't get laid off.
And the law gives them that power, but they shouldn't be able to force all the workers in the company to pay dues to the union, simply to work. I mean it's, you know, it's your money. You've worked to earn that. If you're a worker, you shouldn't be forced to pay the union simply to hold a job.
CONAN: Let's get another caller in. This is Grace, another caller from Tulsa.
GRACE: Yes, sir. I was - have an example of American Airlines here in Tulsa, which is the largest employer here in Tulsa. And, you know, my father-in-law, he retired when he was 59 when it was a very, very solvent company and all - our Tulsa community thrived. And those people, you know, huge communities grew. Well, now, we have stagnant wages. American Airlines has given up their benefits over the last 10 years, the unions have different segments of it - five, seven dollars an hour they've given up. Health benefits, they've given back up, pension plans they've lowered - and still, the American Airlines people are going broke.
So I just think that it's really a fallacy that a business is going to do better, you know, if we don't have unions. I mean unions have given all of us great benefits as far as people - even in a union, we wouldn't have a vacation, we wouldn't have, you know, safety on the job, lots of those things. And I do not, here in Oklahoma, see anything improving.
CONAN: Michael Kazin, going back to things like the 40-hour workweek and vacations, that sort of thing, that's - what - part of what your book is about.
KAZIN: Yeah. We have a Labor Day holiday because of unions as well, so people can barbeque in a nice day in early September.
CONAN: Unless you work in a mall.
KAZIN: Well, of course, yeah. And that's, of course, malls aren't union.
KAZIN: But, you know, I think the difference you mean and Mr. Sherk, it's an important difference is a question of a definition of freedom in many ways. I mean Mr. Sherk, like most of conservatives, believes that that the most important definition of freedom is the individual should do whatever he or she wants at any given time as much as possible. And I respect that definition. But the reason unions exist is because of a different idea of solidarity, of everyone sort of helping everyone else.
And in fact, if you have some workers who are in the union and pay dues and other workers in the same workplace, same - working side by side with one another who are not in the union, some making a lot more money than others, you know, it's not a good workplace environment and...
KAZIN: ...as I said, you know, the idea of - that unions began was to protect the countervailing power to corporations. I mean what Mr. Sherk is saying in fact is that corporations have all the freedom they want to hire and fire. If it's a 22-year-old who's doing a better job than a 40-year-old, then that 40-year-old can be fired, and union contracts exist to make sure that kind of thing can't happen.
CONAN: Grace, thanks very much for the call.
GRACE: You're welcome.
CONAN: You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. And, James Sherk, I wanted to ask you: Was that a fair characterization?
SHERK: Well, to some extent what he's saying, I mean there is certainly very - a different conception of freedom between those on the left and those on the right. And certainly those on the left tend to take a more collective view, and those on the right tend to be more focused on the individual. But I think you take a look at some of these union contracts, and they're very often not focused to collective good. I mean you take a look at public - like education. You've got this, you know, your first hire or your last hired, first fired seniority provisions. And so you have like the Milwaukee public schools in 2010 awarded Megan Sampson their Outstanding First Year Teacher Award, and then a week later fired her. Why? Because she didn't have seniority.
Well, what happened to best interest of the children? No, I don't think it was, but she was fired because that was in the union contract that they wanted the new hires to go first. And I think it leads to tremendous unfairness for individual workers who the collective has decided you're going to take the hit for us.
CONAN: Let me ask you another question, and I want to hear from Michael Kazin too. Is this about economics, or is it about politics? If you look at the states that are right-to-work states, it looks a little like the map of the George W. Bush last election in 2004.
SHERK: Well, I think it's about both economics and the different conception of freedom, like you said. Again, you're going to get more conservative states are going to be more sympathetic to the argument for right to work that you, you know, shouldn't be forced to pay union dues in order to work, in order to teach. But at the some time, it's also about economics. Why is Michigan taking this up now? Why is Indiana taking it up now? Well, you know, you had Republican majorities in the 2000s, you know, a decade ago in those states, and they didn't touch it then.
Why now? I think it's because the recession has been so bad that they want to do what they can to attract jobs and encourage economic development in their states, whereas that wasn't quite suppressing in the past.
CONAN: Michael Kazin, is it about economics, or is about politics?
KAZIN: Well, it's both obviously, you know, usually is. I mean if (unintelligible) to the economy, then why the golden age of American capitalism was the 1950s and 1960s when we had the highest percentage of private sector workers in unions, we ever have had before since in American history. There are many reasons for that. But one reason is because unions helped to level the playing field much more. But also politically, I mean one of the interesting things about this Michigan law is that it excepts firefighters and police. And why is that? Well, you can argue different things, but one of the reasons I think is that firefighters and police have a tradition in Michigan of swing Republicans.
CONAN: Mr. Sherk...
SHERK: I would just add that in the Michigan state Constitution they have collective bargaining for the public safety workers, directly in the state Constitution, so it's something that the legislature had no authority to change, that they consulted their lawyers and were told that it wouldn't pass muster under the state Constitution. So they didn't have much of a choice there.
CONAN: Well, we'll leave it there. And, James Sherk, thank you very much for your time today.
SHERK: Thank you.
CONAN: James Sherk is a senior policy analyst in labor economics at The Heritage Foundation and joined us from a studio there. Michael Kazin, professor of history at Georgetown University, co-editor of Dissent Magazine, author of "American Dreamers: How the Left Changed a Nation," with us by phone today, from his home in Chevy Chase, Maryland. Thanks very much for your time.
KAZIN: Thank you, Neal.
CONAN: Up next, gay marriage. The Supreme Court has decided to hear two major cases on it for the first time in 2013. Our next guest, who supports gay marriage, worries it may be too soon for his cause. Jonathan Capehart will join us after a short break. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.