Estimates vary as to how drastically right-to-work policies ultimately reduce union membership, but the consensus at this point is that they’re a drag. Michigan offers a useful illustration, in part because it passed a right to work law in 2013, meaning enough time has passed to judge its initial effects, and because the state’s largest teachers union, the Michigan Education Association, files financial and membership information with the Department of Labor. (Many purely public sector unions don’t because they aren’t required to.) According to those documents, the union has lost 18 percent of its membership since the statute was passed. Dues and membership fees have declined, meanwhile, by 28 percent. The union hasn’t collapsed, but it is significantly reduced.
David Crim, a spokesman for the Michigan Education Association, told me that many teachers decided to leave the union even though they supported it, because dropping their membership and not paying dues was the only way they felt they could increase their incomes at a time when educators’ wages in Michigan have been stagnant. If true, that points to how right-to-work policies can create a vicious cycle for unions: Weakening organized labor makes it harder for public sector unions to organize and bargain for better pay, encouraging more teachers to drop their memberships for the sake of their own finances.
The fate of the MEA isn’t necessarily a perfect preview of what’s to come for public sector unions. As University of Oregon Professor Gordon Lafer pointed out to me, Michigan’s right-to-work law banned unions from collecting any dues through a simple payroll deduction. Instead, they have to do it through a credit card, check, or bank draft, which is far more cumbersome and probably cuts into dues payments further. “The Supreme Court decision bans fair-share fees, but still lets voluntary dues be paid by payroll deduction, so its impact should be somewhat less than Michigan,” Lafer told me.
It’s also possible some unions could see a much more severe free-rider problem than what the Michigan Education Association has experienced. In one telling case, a public employees’ union in Iowa won recertification in 2017 with support from 83 percent of the bargaining unit’s workers. But only 29 percent are enrolled as union members; the rest are choosing to free-ride.
If you’re trying to explain the outcome in Michigan in 2016, the Republican war on organized labor is a much more important factor than Hillary Clinton’s campaign tactics.