Let me preface this by saying I really haven't really done any research on the current Right-to-work legislation in Michigan or about Right-to-Work in general. So if I'm putting my foot in my mouth, can you please correct me in the comments? Thanks.
As I understand it, the current Right-to-work bills in Michigan would put an end to the agency model we currently have in Michigan. Under the agency model employers are can hire union and non-union employees. Non-union employees are not forced to join the union, but do have to pay a fee to cover the costs of collective bargaining. This basically creates a free rider problem, whereby workers benefit from the efforts of collective bargaining but do not have an incentive to pay for it.
Anyway, under the current legislation, the agency model would be outlawed except for police and firefighters. This is either because firefighters and police are so important and lawmakers don't want to screw them over, or it's because the Republicans in Lansing really really dislike these public safety employees (remember, right-to-work makes things better for employees). Sometimes it's hard for me to get my rhetoric right.
Here's my understanding of the current situation. If RySny signs the right-to-work laws, as he is expected to do this week, they will go into effect around April 1, 2013. From that point forward, the agency model will be outlawed in future contract negotiations. So this means that unions wont immediately end, but they will likely bleed to death slowly. Also, it's worth pointing out that the legislature has attached minor appropriations to each of these bills so that they will be exempt from facing a voter referendum a la Public Act 4. Hella democratic.
Though the proponents of right-to-work legislation (which is bankrolled by folks like the the Koch Bros.) argue that it makes things better for workers and better for the economy, results are inconclusive. There's a lot that goes into economic vitality beyond the right to unionize e.g. the states with the highest (Nevada) and lowest (North Dakota) unemployment rates are both right-to-work states. What is clearer is that in right-to-work states workers earn less (3.2%), are less likely to have employer sponsored health care (2.6%), and are less likely to have an employer sponsored pension (4.8%). Perhaps the most disturbing difference is that the rate of workplace death is 52.9% higher in right-to-work states. Michigan Radio has a good discussion of the impacts of right-to-work legislation on their site.
So how did it all come to this? How did nurses and teachers become vilified by the right as greedy fat cats? As a liberal, I see union spending on political campaigns as an important check on the power of big businesses and the ultra wealthy. Though I could see how this would make me bitter if I were a republican and forced to pay union dues, a portion of which went to counteract my personal political goals. Broadly speaking, I don't think labor has done a great job changing with the times and painting a visionary image of unions in the 21st century. The right has done a good job driving a wedge between working class non-union workers and working class union workers and labor has not done a good job demonstration their value to the country as a whole.
Anyway, I'm probably not as well informed about all this as I should be. If you are looking to get a better informed yourself, Michigan Radio has a lot of good coverage. In particlular, I really liked Jack Lessenberry's essay last Friday and this excerpt from Stateside yesterday. Gentle readers, please share your thoughts on the current right-to-work legislation, unions, and/or the future of organized labor. I'd love to hear your thoughts.