Wednesday, December 12, 2012

President Obama's Strange Critique of Michigan's Right to Work Law

 Wolverine Fiercely Protecting the Right to Work (Finally)

Michigan has the nation's highest rate of unionization and one of the nation's highest rates of unemployment.  Many in the state and elsewhere believe that this correlation is not accidental, that is, that the state's union-friendly environment unduly raises wages and other labor-related costs and deters business investment and resulting employment opportunities.  See George J. Stigler, The Theory of Price, 279 (4th Ed. 1987) ("The labor union is for the labor market the equivalent of the cartel for the product market.").   (See this previous post discussing some data on the question.)  Indeed, as previously discussed on this blog, Michigan and other union-friendly states are losing population to states such as Texas, Florida, Georgia, Nevada, South Carolina and Utah, as businesses and the jobs they create migrate to states with tax and regulatory environments that are more friendly to productive economic activity. 

Just yesterday the Michigan Legislature added the Wolverine state to the growing list of states known as "right to work states."   In so doing, Michigan followed the lead of Indiana, which passed similar legislation in February of this year.  To precise, the legislature banned so-called "closed shop agreements," and "agency shop agreements."  Such provisions in collective bargaining agreements require a firm's employees to join a union (closed shop agreements) or, in the alternative, to pay dues to support the union's collective bargaining activities (agency shop agreements).  As a result of such legislation, Michigan workers may now choose to work wherever they wish, free of any compulsion to support unions they oppose.  Governor Rick Snyder signed the legislation into law last evening.

Support for Michigan's right to work legislation was not unanimous, with some on the Progressive Left decrying the legislation.  Chief among the detractors was President Obama, who flew to Detroit to denounce the pending legislation earlier this week, in a speech otherwise devoted to fiscal policy.  The Huffington Post reported the President's remarks as follows:

"And by the way, what we shouldn't do -- I've just got to say this -- what we shouldn't be doing is trying to take away your rights to bargain for better wages and working conditions," he added to loud applause from the audience. "We shouldn't be doing that. The so-called 'right-to-work' laws -- they don't have to do with economics, they have everything to do with politics. What they're really talking about is giving you the right to work for less money."

President Obama's attempted and failed intervention in Michigan politics is perplexing on several levels.  For one thing, the Taft-Hartley Act, which authorizes states to ban closed shop and agency shop agreements is the Supreme Law of the Land and expresses national policy of the subject.  As previously explained on this blog, that policy encourages states to decide for themselves whether compelled support for unions will enhance growth and economic opportunity within their borders.  As President, Mr. Obama must, according to Article II of the Constitution, "take care that [Taft-Hartley] is faithfully executed."       President Obama may well believe Taft-Hartley was a bad idea.  Moreover, he is perfectly free to introduce legislation repealing Taft-Hartley if he wishes.  Absent such a repeal, however, he should embrace the legislation and respect Michigan's choice.

Moreover, the President's account of the Michigan legislation is, simply put, false.  The legislation in no way limits "rights to bargain for better wages and working conditions."  On the contrary, the legislation leaves each and every Michigan worker perfectly free to affiliate with a union and thus bargain collectively for higher wages and better conditions.  All the legislation does is prevent unions and the firms with which they bargain from compelling individuals to subsidize a union as a condition of pursuing his or her chosen vocation.

Finally, the President's claim that "right-to-work" legislation  is about "politics" and not "economics" does not withstand even cursory scrutiny.  According to economists who have studied the question, rampant unionization of American industry during the mid-late 1930s hampered economic recovery and lengthened and deepened the Great Depression.  (See here and here for previous discussions of these data.)  To put a finer point on it, federal imposition of labor cartels distorted the allocation of the nation's resources and reduced employment, as many predicted at the time.  Millions of Americans became poorer as a result.  While coercive imposition of trade unions on American business raises the wages of some workers, other workers and, ultimately society at large,  suffer. 

Update (4:50 PM, December 12):  Over at CNN, William Bennett has penned an Op-Ed praising Michigan's choice of Right-to-Work status.  In so doing, Bennett echoes some of the arguments made above.  In particular, Bennett offers an effective rebuttal of President Obama's claim that right to work laws are all about politics and not about economics.  According to Bennett:

"[C]ontrary to President Obama's thinking, right-to-work laws are directly related to economics. Right-to-work laws give employers the freedom to hire non-union workers and negotiate contracts with more than one party. For this reason, right-to-work states are more attractive to private business than non-right-to-work, and could increase private-sector wages.  For example, on CNBC's annual list of the best states for business, nine of the top 10 states are right-to-work states. It's no coincidence that foreign automobile manufacturers often build new plants in right-to-work states like Tennessee and Alabama, rather than Detroit -- the "Motor City."  Perhaps Michigan's new right-to-work status will unlock employers from burdensome union contracts and attract new private enterprise to Detroit, which is predicted to go bankrupt by the end of this year. After all, Gov. Scott Walker's union reforms in neighboring Wisconsin helped eliminate the state's budget shortfall."