Whither Michigan, so may go other union-friendly states.
The right-to-work legislation signed by Michigan Gov. Rick Synder on Tuesday marks a victory for Republican lawmakers and others who believe that unions hurt the U.S. economy.
The pair of new laws, which make Michigan the 24th right-to-work state, make it harder for its workers to organize and to maintain power because workers covered by union contracts willno longer be required to pay dues.
The impact ofMichigan's decision will be felt far beyond the borders of the once-staunchly pro-union state, however.
"It's a union story today, and a much broader economic story tomorrow," said Harley Shaiken, a professor at UC Berkeley and an expert on union issues.
That's partly because there are so few union members left for such legislation to directly impact. Only 11.8 percent of American workers,or nearly 14.8 million people, were union members in 2011, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. That's down substantially from just a decade earlier, when 13.3 percent of workers, or 16.3 million people, were union members.
Even in Michigan – long considered the stronghold of unionized workers in America – just 17.5 percent of workers, or 671,000 people,are union members.
That's marks a very steep drop from the early 1970s, when about 40 percent of workers in the state were unionized, said Henry Farber, an economics professor at Princeton University and an expert on labor unions.
That figure has fallen steadily in the decades since, as heavily unionized automakers shed U.S. jobs because the auto industry became increasingly globalized.
Despite the gradual erosion of union representation in Michigan, Farber said it's still a stunning change to see such a highly industrialized state adopt right-to-work legislation that severely limits labor's power.
He expects Michigan's legislation to have a major ripple effect on other historically labor-friendly states like New York and New Jersey.
"The symbolism is mainly that it will embolden opponents in other states to try to do similar things," he said.