The big union fight in Michigan explained

Union workers hold up a signs during a rally outside the Capitol in Lansing, Mich., Thursday, Dec. 6, 2012.
AP Photo/Carlos Osorio

Michigan Republican Gov. Rick Snyder is expected to sign right-to-work legislation as early as today that will prevent employees in the state from having to pay dues to a union. Appearing at an event outside Detroit Monday, President Obama assailed the legislation as a political ploydesigned to "take away your right to bargain for better wages"; he referred to the legislation as "right to work for less money."

Unions are outraged that right-to-work legislation has come to the state that is, to some degree, the symbolic heart of the labor movement; conservatives say that it will give more freedom to workers and create "more and better jobs in Michigan," in Snyder's words.

Right-to-work is complicated, starting with that carefully-crafted name - who, you might wonder, would oppose the right to work? Below, we explore the debate around right-to-work laws and what the current fight means for Michigan and the rest of the nation.

What is right-to-work?

It's the name that proponents have given to legislation that prevents agreements in which employees are required to pay union dues.

Even without a right-to-work law in place, American workers can't be forced to join a union. But many unions and companies have arrangements in which workers are required to pay union dues as a condition for employment, even if they don't join the union. Right-to-work laws make such agreements illegal. Employees can choose not to join a union, though they would still receive the benefits of union representation if their company is unionized.

Supporters of such laws - largely Republicans and business interests, including the Koch brothers - say workers should have the right not to pay union dues if they don't want to. (They also call the laws "freedom to work" legislation.) In addition, they say that right-to-work laws are good for business. Economist Thomas Holmes in 2000 found that growth in manufacturing in counties near the border in right-to-work states was 26 percentage points greater than non-right-to-work states - a finding trumpeted by right-to-work supporters

Critics - largely Democrats and unions - say the laws are designed to weaken unions. If employees are not required to pay union dues, they point out, unions are likely to shrink and labor will have less leverage to engage in collective bargaining. That results, they say, in lower wages and worse working conditions. Opponents of the law also say it's no surprise that businesses are drawn to states with anti-union policies, as well as looser regulation and lower taxes, but that doesn't prove such policies are good for the economy - and workers shouldn't have to suffer in a race-to-the-bottom battle between states to appeal to businesses.

So what has happened in Michigan?

Last Thursday, Michigan's GOP-led legislature passed bills to make Michigan the 24th state with right-to-work laws on the books. The move came as something of a surprise, in part because Snyder, the governor, has long maintained that right-to-work was not on his agenda. The first-term governor, who has until now largely been viewed as a moderate, said Thursday he plans to sign the measure despite it being a "divisive issue."

Thousands of union workers protested the vote Thursday in Michigan's capital, Lansing, chanting "shame on you" at lawmakers; eight were arrested. The fight over right-to-work has particular resonance in Michigan, which is arguably the heart of the labor movement: "Sit down" strikes in Flint in the 1930s launched the United Auto Workers as a major power and led to the unionization of the U.S. auto industry.