Michigan Public Employees Abandon Unions, Exercising Their Right to Work

Published February 18, 2019

Six years after Michigan enacted a landmark right-to-work law, public-sector employees in the Wolverine State are opting out of union membership, draining union coffers of a once-reliable stream of dues.

Before passage of the right-to-work law in 2013, 96 percent of Michigan’s public employees paid dues to a union, says Tyler Arnold of Watchdog.org, a project of the Franklin Center for Government & Public Integrity, using data compiled by the Mackinac Center for Public Policy. Today, 76 percent of public workers are union members, based on federal reports the state’s largest unions file if they represent any private sector employees, says Arnold.

Although Michigan’s right-to-work law also applies to private-sector unions, the rebound in employment since the Great Recession has resulted in auto-worker union membership rising from 382,513 in 2012 to 430,871 today, though it remains far below the recent peak of 701,818 in 2002, states Jarrett Skorup of the Mackinac Center.

State’s Union Membership Declines

Some public sector unions have had their membership drop by 10 percent since the 2013 law went into effect. Others, such as the Michigan State Employees Association (MSEA) and Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 517M, have suffered a 20 percent decline in dues-paying members.

Dues-paying membership in MSEA fell by 375, from 3,079 to 2,734, and SEIU Local 571M lost 782 members, declining from 3,532 to 2,750.

Although auto industry employment has rebounded over the past five years and overall UAW membership has increased, United Auto Workers (UAW) Local 6000, which represents public-sector employees, has also lost members, Skorup reports.

Before enactment of the law, UAW Local 6000 had 15,673 members, accounting for 91 percent of the covered workforce.  Five years later, that figure had dropped to 13,785—82 percent of workers covered under collective bargaining agreements.

Public Safety Exempted

The Michigan law does not apply to public safety jobs, such as police and firefighters. In those fields, union membership ticked up, says Skorup.

Membership in the Michigan State Troopers Association (MSTA) rose from 1,374 in 2013 to 1,702 in 2018, Skorup states.

Today, 99 percent of state police pay dues to the MSTA, up from 94 percent five years ago.

Janus Decision Changes Game

Michigan’s right-to-work law received a significant boost in 2018 when the U.S. Supreme Court, in Janus v. AFSCME, ruled compelling public employees to pay union dues violates their First Amendment rights to freedom of speech and freedom of association. The decision means public safety workers in Michigan have right-to-work status.

“In right-to-work states, individuals are given the freedom to associate or disassociate with a union,” said Morgan Shields, director of Workers for Opportunity at the Mackinac Center.

“In Michigan, since right-to-work passed, most unions have seen a decline in membership,” Shields said.

“When workers are given that option, many of them choose to exercise that freedom,” said Shields.

Unions’ Political Spending Declines

As workers have left the unions, Michigan has fallen from the seventh most-unionized state in the nation to the tenth-most. “Over the first five years of the law, the state’s largest unions lost 85,000 people, or 11 percent,” states Dawson Bell at MichiganCapitolConfidential.com, a Mackinac Center news service.

The fall in union membership dues and fees also led to a decline in the unions’ political spending of $26 million, or 57 percent, states Bell.

The number of government employees, which fell during the previous decade, has held steady at about 600,000 since the law went into effect, Bell reports.

“This signals that the state’s right-to-work law is the primary reason for a loss in union membership and dues,” states Bell.

National Decline in Membership

Nationally, union membership is declining as a percentage of the workforce, says Bell, citing a January news release from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

The number of workers belonging to unions, at 14.7 million in 2018, was little changed from 2017, but as a share of the workforce, union membership declined from 10.5 percent in 2017 to 10.2 percent in 2018, the BLS states.

 In 1983, the first year for which comparable union data are available, the union membership rate was 20.1 percent and there were 17.7 million union workers, states the BLS.

Overall union membership rates remained higher in Michigan than the national average in 2018, at 14.5 percent, the BLS report said. Last year’s number was essentially unchanged from 2016 (14.4 percent).

Unions Resist, Workers Sue

State right-to-work laws and the Supreme Court’s Janus decision are welcome developments, says National Right to Work Foundation Vice President Patrick Semmens.

“State right-to-work legislation and the landmark Janus victory give workers the right to choose whether or not they want to subsidize a union,” said Semmens.

Many union officials are ignoring these laws and denying workers their First Amendment rights, says Semmens.

“Unfortunately, rather than respect those rights, union bosses have shown time and time again they will ignore state law to keep their forced-fees war chest full,” said Semmens.

“That’s why enforcement is so critical, and why since Michigan’s right-to-work laws went into effect our staff attorneys have litigated more than 100 cases in the state on behalf of workers seeking to challenge Big Labor’s forced unionism schemes,” Semmens said.

Bonner R. Cohen, Ph.D. ([email protected]) is a senior fellow at the National Center for Public Policy Research.

Internet Info

Bureau of Labor Statistics, “Union Members—2018,” news release, January 18, 2019: