Former Michigan AFL-CIO President Mark Gaffney and Vincent Vernuccio, director of labor policy at the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, squared off Tuesday, Feb. 10, in a debate over Michigan’s right-to-work law.
“Those who are behind it want to see unions weakened,” Gaffney asserted. “Right-to-work comes from the rise of the political right in this country and the conservative movement becoming more active.”
“If that’s so, than why have we seen unions actually growing in some right-to-work states?” Vernuccio responded.
The debate was sponsored by the Michigan Labor and Employment Relations Association. An audience of approximately 50 attended the event, which was held at the Spartan Hall of Fame Café in East Lansing. Gaffney is currently a business agent for Teamsters Union Local 214. Vernuccio served as special assistant to the assistant secretary for administration and management in the Department of Labor under President George W. Bush.
The following are excerpts from the debate. One of the conditions of the debate was that it could not be tape recorded.
Gaffney: “I think you’re going to see these battles over right-to-work continue; it could be an issue soon in states like New Hampshire and Missouri and I believe it will be an (election) issue in 2016. Right-to-work is probably not a death sentence for unions. However, my fear is that if too many employees choose to drop out … it doesn’t take 100 percent, it doesn’t even take 50 percent; if there aren’t enough members, the cost of dues will rise too high to be sustainable.”
“But so far we’ve had less than 5 percent drop out and the amount of requests to leave a union originally (immediately after right-to-work laws go into effect) tends to be higher. So people like me spend a lot of time fighting against it; while people like Vinnie fight for it and in the end it is all about 5 percent. In a way, it is not a big deal.”
Vernuccio: “We can talk about statistics and how many workers stay in or drop out, but what this is really about is freedom – the freedom to say whether or not they’ll support or have to pay a union. Right-to-work makes unions stronger by making them have to prove their worth to their members.”
“In Indiana, since right-to-work was adopted there, the unions gained 50,000 members. We’ve even quoted Doug Pratt of the MEA (Michigan Education Association) saying: ‘We are stronger’ because of it. Right-to-work helps with union organizing by making the union focus on a volunteering membership. A good example is the pipefitters union, where they offer excellent training. They’re focusing on the individual instead of the group.”
A question was posed by someone in the audience about the requirement that the union still represent an employee even if that person has dropped out.
Gaffney: “I think you’re talking about what’s been called free riders. Because the union has exclusive representation it still has the responsibility to represent an employee even if that employee has dropped out of the union. This is a legal obligation. If a union member has a problem with the employer, the union represents that member in the case. Now, even if the employee is not a member of the union, the union still has to represent them in the case – and these cases can cost a lot of money.”
“Any organization you belong to, you have to pay dues to help support the services that organization provides. Organizations cannot exist without the financial support of members. There are about five or six basic things employees want and expect to get from their unions, but we really only have to talk about the two obvious ones – high pay and benefits.”
“So, if unions are going to serve their members they’re going to have to give them what they want. With the passage of right-to-work, one thing I’ll enjoy saying to the employers is that ‘now I am going to have to be tougher (representing the employees) so my side will win.’ In other words, right-to-work will make unions more militant.”
Vernuccio: “This is another area where we might have some agreement. It’s sort of the flipside of the free rider question. We support making a change so that when employees decide to leave a union, they’re on their own. If they get in trouble at work, it’s their responsibility. But what we’re saying with our support for right-to-work is that they should have that option. If they want union representation they should pay for it. If not, then they shouldn’t have that representation.”
“Unfortunately, in the private sector this issue could only be resolved at the federal level, but that’s not necessarily the case in the public sector.”
Gaffney: “That’s something that may sound good and reasonable on its face, but if we say employees don’t have to be represented by the union and can be on their own then employers will offer incentives like paying nonunion employees more. So, in practice it wouldn’t as reasonable as it sounds.”
Vernuccio: “Part of our proposal is that employers wouldn’t be able to do that.”
Subsequently during the debate when Vernuccio pointed out that employee salaries have increased in states that have right-to-work laws, he gave examples. Gaffney countered this argument by saying such increases could be attributed to an improving national economy and a myriad of other factors. Vernuccio agreed that whether or not a state has a right-to-work law is just one factor among many that can impact a number of economic statistics.
A question was posed by someone in the audience about employees having less leverage at the bargaining table without the unity unions provide.
Vernuccio: “That kind of leverage is something employees get when they are the most qualified people.”
Gaffney: “You (Vernuccio) have a far better image of the universe of employers than I do. I think many of them would take advantage of employees not being organized, and provide pay and benefits based on things other than who the better workers are. That gets back to the reason there were unions in the first place.”
Vernuccio: “To us, the greater injustice is to make someone pay for something they don’t want to pay for.”
A question was posed by someone in the audience about set periods of time (windows) used by some unions to restrict members’ opportunities for dropping out. If the members don’t apply to leave the union during these specific periods, they have to wait until the same calendar dates in the following year.
Vernuccio: “What the unions base this on is the claim that when the employee originally signed their card to join the union this (window) was part of their membership agreement. Our position is that under the right-to-work law, employees can get out of a union whenever they want to.”
Gaffney: “Ours (the Teamsters’ window) is actually based on the anniversary of when the member signed their dues card, and is limited to two weeks. But we do send out a letter informing them of the dates.”
“I think MERC (the Michigan Employment Relations Commission) is very likely to say they can drop out as members at any time.”
A question posed by a member of the audience was about unions posting the names of employees who are not in the union.
Gaffney: “The courts have not ruled on this, but a union could always post the names of the employees who are part of the union. And I must say that I don’t see how this issue helps support the premise that right-to-work fosters a better work environment.”
Vernuccio said he did not believe that unions should be allowed to post the names of those who weren’t members, but he agreed that the issue is up to the courts.
Another question from the audience pertained to a lawsuit claiming the Michigan Civil Service Commission could overrule the right-to-work law as regards to state employees.
Gaffney: “The union side of this argument is that the state constitution gave the Civil Service Commission authority over decisions involving state employees.”
Vernuccio: “I think the law is clear and it applies to state workers just like everyone else. Just as the Civil Service Commission couldn’t just say that the minimum wage for state workers is $2 an hour, it can’t say right-to-work doesn’t apply to state workers.”