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How Will Right-To-Work Law Affect Unions?


The right-to-work legislation that was passed, and signed into law, in Michigan this week has been called a staggering blow to organized labor. Such laws allow workers to refuse to join a union and pay union dues, even if they're employed in a unionized workplace. Twenty-four states now have similar laws but Michigan, as the home of the U.S. auto industry, is considered one of the foundries of the American labor movement.

We're joined now, from the studios of member station WUOM in Ann Arbor, by Bob King, president of the United Auto Workers. Mr. King, thanks for being with us.

BOB KING: Scott, thank you for having me on.

SIMON: If the union's doing a good job for its members, do you have anything to worry about?

KING: You know, it's more about the symbolic effect of this right-to-work law in Michigan. So practically or pragmatically, do I think we'll lose a lot of members? No, I don't.

SIMON: As we noted, though, Mr. King, Michigan now becomes the 24th state to have a right-to-work law. So what's wrong with companies not requiring workers to join a union, as a condition of employment?

KING: Under federal law, no worker's required to join a union. There's a long - many, many years ago, there was a Supreme Court decision that interpreted federal law that way, and we've all lived with it. And matter of fact, in the UAW, we don't want people to belong that don't - belong. We have, in our own constitution, provisions that members - that workers don't have to be members. Now, they have to pay - like any citizen of any community, they've got to pay their fair share of representation.

SIMON: Well, I'm going to try the question again, though. So what's wrong with not requiring workers to join a union, as a condition of employment - if it works out as happily as you say?

KING: There's nothing wrong. What is wrong, is saying that workers are going to get the benefit of representation - benefit of grievance procedure, contract, health care - all those things that we administer in a contract - and they don't have to pay their fair share for the cost of that representation. That's wrong.

SIMON: Why do you think foreign car manufacturers have built new plants - which after all, employ thousands of auto workers - in Tennessee and Alabama, and not Michigan?

KING: Well, I think when they originally were setting them up 25 or 30 years ago, they were concerned about lack of flexibility in UAW contracts with GM, Ford and Chrysler. But today, the reasons they did it are less and less pertinent. UAW contracts are more flexible. UAW workers make the highest-quality products. So things have - pretty dramatically - shifted.

SIMON: As I don't have to tell you, Mr. King, the latest figures show that a little under 12 percent of American workers belong to unions. And it was about 20 percent, 30 years ago. And I wonder if, say - if there's something generational involved here because with respect for what unions have achieved in America, you have these big, successful new companies like Apple, Google and Microsoft, who - not unionized. So are unions, with the glorious history - occasionally tainted by corruption - an artifact of the past?

KING: I definitely don't think so. The majority of workers in America would like to be in a union, if they could be. What is true, in America, is that really, workers have lost the full democratic right to decide if they want to be in unions or not. There are studies by human rights organizations that have documented that one of the countries that really suppresses workers' rights to join unions - more than any other developed nation - is the United States. And so there isn't really the full democratic right to join unions, in America. That's - I would say - the single biggest reason.

SIMON: So you believe that we have a much smaller percentage of American workers who are labor union members today because of - I'm trying to finish that sentence for you - because you believe...

KING: Because the law is slanted against workers. This country does not give workers a full democratic right to join unions.

SIMON: Bob King, who's president of the United Auto Workers; speaking with us from WUOM in Ann Arbor. Thanks so much, Mr. King.

KING: Thank you, Scott. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.