Right to work law could put Michigan back on the business map

DETROIT Tue Dec 11, 2012 8:11pm EST

DETROIT Dec 11 (Reuters) - Michigan, a symbol of U.S. industrial rise and decline, is about to get a second look from corporate America.

The heavily unionized state took a big step toward encouraging business investment on Tuesday with "right to work" legislation that prohibits union membership as a condition of employment.

While Michigan must still address other problems such as its outdated infrastructure and high taxes, the legislation puts the Wolverine state in the company of 23 other states that have passed "right to work" laws to attract investment.

"We're going to see some major investments in Michigan over the next two to three years," said Neil De Koker, the head of Troy, Michigan-based trade group the Original Equipment Suppliers Association, which represents auto component makers.

Supporters of right-to-work said it tempers industry fears of dealing with the United Auto Workers union and makes Michigan more competitive against neighboring industrial states such as Ohio, which does not have such a law.

"Maybe this is a game-changer for Michigan," said Steve Bernstein, a labor lawyer with Fisher & Phillips. "If we're going to compete with states like Ohio, maybe they're saying, well, this is an ace in the hole for us."

But experts cautioned against expecting a flood of new investments or immediate improvements in the state economy. The two bills passed on Tuesday do not affect existing labor agreements, including the UAW's deals with the big three U.S. automakers that expire in 2015.

General Motors Co, Ford Motor Co and Chrysler Group LLC run 13 plants in Michigan, out of a total 30 factories nationwide, according to Morgan Stanley.

The UAW remains a strong force in Michigan, where 17.5 percent of workers are unionized, the fifth-highest level in the country.

"It's still the headquarters of the UAW," said Arthur Schwartz, president of Labor and Economics Associates and a former labor negotiator for GM. "You think the UAW will not try to organize an auto-related business? That's not going happen."

NOT A ONE-ISSUE THING

In 2007, the UAW agreed to a two-tier wage structure and last year agreed to implement more flexible work rules and eliminate the jobs bank program that gave laid-off workers nearly their full salary and benefits.

But those changes have not been enough to change the UAW's reputation. Many auto investors were worried the UAW will push to recover benefits when the current contract expires in 2015, Morgan Stanley analyst Adam Jonas said on Monday.

Investors feared that "all the good work since the crisis could be chipped away over time," Jonas said during a call with investors. "Moving to right-to-work in Michigan would go some distance towards calming those fears."

Companies also look for a talented labor pool - one advantage for Michigan, which has skilled trades people and engineers who are now unemployed or under-employed in the wake of the auto sector's restructuring.

Labor laws are also an important consideration for companies when they search for sites to build factories, but local and state tax rates weigh heavily on decisions.

Eliminating Michigan's tax on industrial personal property (a tax on manufacturing equipment) would go a long way to improving the state's competitiveness, said Rick Baker, the head of the Grand Rapids Chamber of Commerce.

Nearly all of Michigan's neighboring states have eliminated the tax, but now the question is how do communities offset that loss in funding to pay for public services.

"It's not just a one-issue competitive thing," said Bob Clark, a labor relations consultant in Brighton, Mich., and Ford's former labor economist.

Ford pays 80 percent of its North American property taxes in Michigan, even though only half its property is in the state. This spring, Ford Chairman Bill Ford has called for the repeal of the tax.

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Comments (4)
Meteo666 wrote:
Sad to see Michigan giving corporations more power to exploit workers. The state is taking part in a race to the bottom. Each state seeking ways to give workers less power and businesses more, and the result will be lower wages and more workers being exploited. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to see states cooperating to improve workers rights and working conditions rather than pitting workers in one state against workers in another?

Dec 11, 2012 8:51pm EST  --  Report as abuse
JapanViewer wrote:
Overly powerful unions stifle growth and make the US non competitive. Just like communism, which failed on its own merits and not because of greedy business, so too, overly powerful unions have failed the US, again, not because of anyone’s greed. The idea is not to take worker’s rights away from them, but to find the right balance between protecting worker’s and making businesses financially sensible.

Dec 11, 2012 9:44pm EST  --  Report as abuse
Gigimoderate wrote:
Why are the Koch brothers funding The Americas for Prosperity, Michigan Freedom Fund, among other special interest groups to take down the unions?
Answer: to defund the Democratic Party. They could care less about worker rights or building the middle class. Stay strong Michigan! Vote the extreme right wing out of office. Take control of your state! Hold them accountable!
Oh and they snook in some anti women laws while no one was looking restricting abortions!

Dec 11, 2012 11:19pm EST  --  Report as abuse
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