Nearly a year after Michigan passed Right-to-Work legislation, parties on either side of the bargaining table say the law has had little impact on skilled trades unions in West Michigan.
While some predicted Right-to-Work laws would sound a death knell for organized labor across the state, the skilled trade unions — particularly those in the building trades such as plumbing and sheet metal construction — are finding themselves with plenty of work for the foreseeable future, according to union representatives and shop owners.
“Right to Work isn’t going to be an issue for us,” said Ryan Bennett, business agent for the West Michigan Plumbers, Fitters and Service Trades Local Union No. 174 based in Coopersville.
Although union membership has declined more than 35 percent in Michigan from 1990 to last year according to Bureau of Labor Statistics data, many unions have turned their focus to new methods to recruit younger members as many current workers start to retire. And they just might be in luck: Recent studies show younger generations typically have favorable opinions of unions.
However, Right to Work does not make union organizing any easier. Under the law, it is illegal for a union to force its members to pay dues, meaning anyone could “opt out” while still being entitled to the same benefits of union membership.
Critics of the law, which has been enacted in 24 states, argue that it results in lower wages and incomes for workers, and essentially allows union members to freeload by enjoying the benefits of collective bargaining without contributing to the union.
At the plumbers union, “maybe 5 to 10 percent will opt out of paying dues,” Bennett said. In recent years, the local has redoubled its focus on apprenticeship programs and continuous training, licensing and certification offerings, he said. Those programs provide a distinct value to members — and to union shops who have access to a pool of skilled workers, he said.
Proponents of the legislation, largely business groups such as the Small Business Association of Michigan and the West Michigan Policy Forum, have said for years that Michigan has had a problem with attracting outside investment because of the perception that the state is a bastion of organized labor. They argued that passing Right-to-Work legislation helped make the state more appealing for investment as part of a larger checklist for more business-friendly policies.
“The number one issue for years and years (why companies wouldn’t consider Michigan) is that they were scared to death by the militancy of the unions, and you couldn’t convince them that the unions in West Michigan have historically tended to be non-militant. … You can’t convince an outsider of that,” said Jim Gillette, an independent automotive analyst. “Right to Work is one more step that puts us on an even footing.”
Gov. Rick Snyder said the “Freedom-to-Work” law, which he signed in December and that went into effect on March 28 of this year, is one of many ongoing reforms helping to shape Michigan’s comeback.
“Freedom to Work … (is) one tool in the tool box, one of several changes,” Snyder said in a statement to MiBiz. “It hasn’t been a full year since the law went into effect, so it is still very early in the process. But the administration has been focused on creating more and better jobs and brighter futures for our children as we continue to reinvent our state. Freedom to Work plays a role in that.”
Before signing the bill, Snyder had said many times that he had no interest in pursuing Right-to-Work legislation, which he called “divisive” for a state such as Michigan that had such a long history of organized labor.
However, the manner in which the Right-to-Work legislation was passed caused some controversy. The initial bill was passed very quickly — with no debate or amendments — in the “lame duck” session of the Michigan legislature last December. On the day the bill was signed, thousands of union members and sympathizers descended on the Capitol in Lansing to protest, drawing national attention.
In the wake of the legislation’s passage, Michigan’s public-sector unions have filed lawsuits seeking exemptions from the law. The Michigan Supreme Court thus far has not ruled on the cases.
Unions living under Right to Work have been focused on getting new contracts in place, thus immunizing themselves from the provisions in the law for at least the next few years, said Pat White, chair of the labor and employment group at Varnum LLP.
“The major effect that Right to Work had really was a flurry of union activity attempting to get new agreements in under the wire so that they would be grandfathered,” White said. “Some unions really didn’t care.”
While some skilled trade unions say they won’t be affected by Right to Work, the same is not necessarily true of their public-sector counterparts, particularly school teachers, White said. Teachers have historically felt secure about their positions because the state and local communities use tax dollars to fund schools, he said.
With those dollars not flowing as freely as they once did, teachers see some of that perception of security diminishing, White said.
Meanwhile, private-sector unions out of self-preservation have begun to embrace the notion that they must make some concessions — more so than their public-sector counterparts — so that businesses remain viable and stay in Michigan, White said.
“In the private sector, they were getting the idea that they had to keep the unionized businesses in business or else we all suffer out of this because our workers here in Michigan aren’t likely to get re-employed if a successor comes in and takes over the business. (The jobs) were likely leaving the state and maybe leaving the country,” White said. “Public sector (unions) didn’t have that kind of pressure.”
In 1983, more than 20 percent of all wage and salaried workers nationwide belonged to a union, according to data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). Thirty years later, just 12 percent of U.S. workers carry union cards.
From 2006 to 2012, union membership in the Grand Rapids-Holland-Muskegon combined statistical area (CSA) fell by about 4,019 people, or more than 4.5 percent, according to data from Unionstats.com, a project of professors at Georgia State University and Trinity University based on BLS data. Statewide, union membership dropped by more than 213,000 members or about 25 percent over the same period. About 16.6 percent of all employed workers in Michigan, or 629,000 people, were members of a union in 2012.
Skilled trades in demand
While private-sector union membership as a percentage of all employed workers in Detroit (12.7 percent) is almost double the level in the Grand Rapids-Holland-Muskegon CSA (6.4 percent) based on 2012 data, a number of area manufacturers have embraced their union employees and consider organized labor an integral part of their business.
“We admire the opportunity to get trained workers when it’s time to gear up,” said Eileen Kanaar, president of East Muskegon Roofing and Sheet Metal Co. Inc., which also operates Certified Sheet Metal in Walker.
As a unionized shop, East Muskegon can quickly ramp up its skilled trades workforce with a phone call to the local business agent, a competitive advantage when the company needs to quickly turn around a project, Kanaar said.
“When we contact the union, (the workers we get) have adequate training,” Kanaar said. “We are confident in their abilities.”
East Muskegon Roofing and Sheet Metal was one of the companies that, in the wake of the state passing Right to Work, negotiated an extension of its union contract, pushing back any direct impact the legislation may have for a couple of years, Kanaar said.
As business picks up for companies as the economy improves and manufacturers and other sectors invest in equipment and facilities expansions, the trades have remained busy this year regardless of Right to Work, union leaders told MiBiz.
While the year started slow with close to 10 percent unemployment for members of the Sheet Metal Workers Local 7 Zone 2 in the greater Grand Rapids area, work has picked up particularly in the food processing sector, which uses a lot of stainless steel equipment, said Business Representative Dave Rutz. Work in food processing alone should keep local union shops “swamped” for the next six months, he said, noting he’s had to reach out to other areas such as Traverse City to ramp up the workforce.
The local represents workers at 25 shops, including East Muskegon, according to its website.
For the plumbers union, which works with 15 local contractors, several recent building construction and renovation projects around downtown Grand Rapids have been a boon for members, Bennett said.
“Work in the construction industry has picked up and that has been a welcome change for us,” he said.
While companies such as East Muskegon Sheet Metal are reliant upon unions for tradesmen, that’s not necessarily the case for all unionized shops, said Earle S. “Win” Irwin, chairman and CEO of Walker-based theater and stadium seating manufacturer, Irwin Seating Co.
The manufacturer’s employees, represented by International Union of Electronic, Electrical, Salaried, Machine and Furniture Workers/Communication Workers of America (IUE/CWA) Local 415, organized in 1951.
But at the end of the day, a union shop still runs like any other business, Irwin said.
“Whether you’re union or non-union, the challenges are the same,” he said. “You have to stay sharp.”
Irwin Seating will renegotiate its union contract starting in 2014, but it’s too early to speculate on the impact of Right to Work on those talks, Irwin said.
A bright future ahead?
Despite declining memberships and the new realities of Right-to-Work laws across the country, organized labor has become proactive in turning its attention to younger workers — many of whom have favorable opinions of unions — and to previously untargeted industries.
A study by The Pew Research Center For The People & The Press released this June indicated that the favorability of labor unions overall has rebounded in recent years. In particular, the research turned up some interesting results related to millennials, or those born from the early 1980s through the early 2000s. In the study, more millennials held favorable opinions of organized labor than they did of business corporations, 61 percent to 51 percent, respectively.
For many of the unions, these studies show some opportunities to get their numbers back up in coming years.
West Michigan union representatives told MiBiz they have been reaching out to high schools and technical centers across the region, informing students of the benefits of union membership. Specifically, the unions are talking to students about how they can get free, on-the-job training via apprenticeships, allowing students to possibly forego taking on the debt associated with college courses.
“(Sheet Metal Workers Local 7) is at the higher end of the payscale, and we train our own people. It’s a big part of what we do,” Rutz told MiBiz.
Base wages for members of the Sheet Metal Workers in greater Grand Rapids hover around $30 per hour, according to the local’s website.
Over the last several years, unions on a national level have also been looking to “non-traditional” sectors to increase membership, said Varnum’s White, pointing to the efforts earlier this year to organize fast-food workers, primarily in larger cities such as New York City and Chicago where the cost of living is higher. That push will most likely be a difficult one, given that many workers within the growing, low-wage service industry don’t see their jobs as part of a long-term career, he said.
The benefits of a union for service workers may not have the same draw that it does for their counterparts in the skilled trades or in manufacturing, White added.
“The place where there is probably the most ability to get some gains is potentially the tech sector,” White said. “It’s like herding cats, though. Tech people are not usually of the one-for-all, all-for-one mentality. … I see it as an unmined opportunity, but it will be a tough one to pull together.”
Myriad data have shown that income inequality continues to increase, making it more difficult to attain the traditional, middle-class income and lifestyle, which has led Bennett of the plumbers union to believe that now is an ideal time for workers to organize.
“Wages are not rising with the cost of living,” Bennett said. “The best way to remedy that is for workers to collectively come together and talk with employers.”
Editor’s Note: A chart that accompanied the print version of this story contained a typo because of a spreadsheet error. The total number of employed workers statewide in 2012 was 3,784,762, of which 628,798 were union members, according to Unionstats.com.