The justifications cited by Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder for why he signed the “right to work” law that Republicans rammed through a lame duck session are as spurious as the name of the bill itself. The statutes now in place in two dozen states using that label provide, of course, no right to employment yet take advantage of the fact that the uninformed may jump to that conclusion.
Snyder has offered several rationales for his decision to approve legislation he had not previously supported. With a straight face he told Joe Scarborough of MSNBC that the law would make unions stronger by holding them more accountable to members, but he went on to repeat the platitudes about “freedom” that the corporate-backed proponents of the law disingenuously employ.
On top of that, Snyder has made the assertion that being a RTW state will make it easier for Michigan to attract new investment and jobs to the state, citing data from the Indiana Economic Development Corporation. The relationship between RTW and attractiveness to corporations is not a simple matter. On the one hand, there is a body of literature showing that RTW does not have a significant impact on job growth or the rate of new business formation. Yet, as Peter Fisher points out in his review of this literature in chapter 6 of his recent report Selling Snake Oil to the States, there is evidence showing that RTW states tend to have lower wage rates and lower per capita income.
There is no doubt that those lower wages along and lower rates of unionization are appealing to at least some low-road companies. In many RTW states there is a long history of coddling such firms. As James Cobb shows in his book The Selling of the South: The Southern Crusade for Industrial Development, 1936-1990, Dixie was using the availability of cheap, non-union labor as a selling point in industrial recruitment even before Section 14(b) of the 1947 Taft-Hartley Act created RTW by giving states the right to outlaw union security provisions in labor agreements. Cobb notes that some southern communities went so far as to offer written commitments to those investors that their operation would be union-free.
It is interesting that Snyder cites Indiana and its IEDC in his economic development rationale for RTW. That state and agency have relied much less on RTW than on subsidies in the effort to attract investment. Both lures are currently given equal billing on the homepage of the IEDC website, yet inside the site there is nothing more about RTW yet there are numerous pages about the myriad business tax credits and other kinds of assistance the state has to offer.
There is also a body of literature showing the limited effectiveness of such financial “incentives” in fostering economic growth, but here too there are some mercenary companies that will respond to handouts. The IEDC, by the way, has been the subject of investigative reporting showing that it has exaggerated the job-creation impact of its activities.
In his Snake Oil to the States report, Peter Fisher notes that RTW, by allowing workers who decline to join an existing union to avoid contributing to the cost of the collective bargaining from which they benefit, should really be called Right to Freeload.
The same can be said about the corporate subsidies that are at the heart of the economic development efforts of Indiana and numerous other states. Special tax breaks granted to certain companies mean that they are not paying their fair share of taxes, forcing other companies and households to make up the difference.
Michigan is actually a special case in this regard. Since taking office, Snyder has pushed the state to rely less on business tax credit programs, which under his predecessor had reached astronomical levels. However, his motivation for this has been to reduce taxes on all companies, meaning that the business sector overall will pay less and thus increase the burden on families.
By reducing wages, RTW is another way of allowing business to avoid paying its fair share of economic growth. The pattern is clear: through a combination of low wages, weak unions, subsidies and low business tax rates, the Right wants to build a society based on corporate freeloading.
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