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Is Michigan's collapse in union membership a sign of things to come?

Is Michigan's collapse in union membership a sign of things to come?
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In Michigan, the so-called “birthplace of organized labor,” unions long have been influential politically. Even with the steady decline of automobile industry jobs over the past few decades, the state remained one of the most unionized in the country.

But in 2010, Republicans scored a trifecta, winning the governorship and near-historic margins in the state House and Senate. On the heels of some education reforms, organized labor recalled a Republican lawmaker and pushed a ballot proposal in 2012 that would have constitutionally prohibited a right-to-work law and any other collective bargaining reform. After it went down by a large margin, Republicans responded by passing a right-to-work law, granting workers the right to opt out of paying union dues or fees.

In the eight years since, this law has had an enormous effect on union membership, finances and political power. Michigan union membership is at a historic low, and the changes may be a sign of things to come across the country.

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Particularly hard hit are the state’s largest government unions, representing public employees. The state’s largest teachers union, the Michigan Education Association (MEA), has gone from 117,000 to 78,000 members, a loss of one-third. And despite hiking dues and clawing back health care benefits from its retirees, the union still has large debts to pay. 

The six unions representing state employees are also down 30 percent, which represents millions in lost dues revenue.

The private-sector unions in the state are doing almost as badly. Despite huge increases in the number of workers in health care, construction, road building and auto manufacturing, many unions representing these employees have declining memberships.

The union representing home caregivers (SEIU Healthcare Michigan) is down nearly 90 percent,  helped by the end of a “dues skim” arrangement. The Teamsters and food service workers are each down double digits. Even the operating engineers and carpenters unions, which are seeing a lot more work than back in 2012, have lost membership. Only the United Auto Workers (UAW), an international union, has staved off membership losses. But a massive corruption problem — with two presidents and many others leaders admitting to having improperly spent members’ dues — is harming its brand and may further erode support for the union.

These changes have had political ramifications in the Great Lakes State. The MEA  and UAW long have been key players in Democratic Party politics. But political spending from them, and most other unions, is down significantly. From the 2012 presidential election year to 2016, direct political spending by most of these unions was cut in half — or more.

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We don’t have 2020 numbers yet, and perhaps spending has rebounded, but the severe losses in the number of “boots on the ground” is still a problem. Since the right-to-work law passed, Democrats have been unable to take back the Michigan House or Senate. And while they won races at the top of the ticket in 2018, there was, as The Atlantic reported, grumbling that the unions didn’t “deliver” and fell “short of their promises” with “their leaders apparently themselves not realizing just how much the state’s right-to-work law had cut their ranks.” 

And, of course, these changes helped make Michigan competitive electorally. Once part of the “blue wall,” not voting for a Republican presidential candidate since George H.W. Bush in 1988, Michigan went for Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpBiden adds to vote margin over Trump after Milwaukee County recount Krebs says allegations of foreign interference in 2020 election 'farcical'  Republicans ready to become deficit hawks again under a President Biden MORE in 2016 and nearly did so in 2020. While Joe BidenJoe BidenBiden adds to vote margin over Trump after Milwaukee County recount Krebs says allegations of foreign interference in 2020 election 'farcical'  New DOJ rule could allow executions by electrocution, firing squad MORE got slightly more union votes than Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonValadao unseats Cox in election rematch Trump says he'll leave White House if Biden declared winner of Electoral College Federal workers stuck it out with Trump — now, we're ready to get back to work MORE did in 2016, more than 40 percent of union members still voted for Trump.

What’s happened in Michigan may be starting to happen elsewhere. In 2018, the U.S. Supreme Court declared it unconstitutional to force public-sector workers to pay dues or fees to a union. In that time, the nation’s four largest unions lost nearly 350,000 dues and fee payers. Today, after holding steady for decades, overall public sector union membership is at the lowest it has been since the 1970s.

Unions are one of the largest spenders in politics, giving Democrats about $2 billion in the 2016 and 2018 election cycles. But if these trends continue, the left may have to look elsewhere for voters, door-knockers and money. 

Jarrett Skorup is the director of marketing and communications at the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a research and educational institute headquartered in Midland, Mich. Follow him on Twitter @JarrettSkorup.