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Norbert Bufka

Author  ยท  Historian

Labor unions in Michigan

An essential component of any business operation, whether manufacturing or service, whether private or public, is the employee, whether there is only one or thousands.  Adam Smith in his Wealth of Nations, the often quoted authority on capitalism, envisioned the employee an integral part of the business and must share in the wealth the company makes. George Lakoff, in his book, The All New Don’t Think of an Elephant, called employees “profit creators”. 

Employees created labor unions so they could secure some benefits through a process called collective bargaining. They were very successful over time through many legal and even bloody battles. These successes include a ban on child labor, a 40 hour work week, extra pay for overtime work,paid days off, unemployment compensation, disability benefits, health insurance benefits, and  retirement plans.  Today these are standard benefits in most employee agreements, whether the employee is in a union or not,.

Even though the owners are the ones who use their capital to start a business, they are not the only ones who take a risk in that business. The employee too is taking a risk in agreeing to work for a particular company. He or she is giving his time, energy, abilities, to the company and deserves recognition and compensation for those risks. In addition, his and his families current and future security rest on that employment.

There have been efforts in recent years to destroy unions based on the false argument that they are an impediment to the free exercise of the business owners. The most egregious example of this is the so-called Right to Work laws, which have been passed in 28 states, including Michigan in December 2012. These laws forbid a union to negotiate with the empoyer for the requirement that all who are covered under the union agreement make “payment of union dues, or fees as a condition of employment”. [i] They receive the benefits of the union but do not pay for them.  

Michigan has had a high percentage of employees belonging to unions, primarily because of the auto industry with hundreds of thousands of workers. The United Auto Workers Union gained respect and Many members through the sit-down strike in 1937 at General Motors plants in Michigan.

In 1989 union membership in Michigan was at its all time high of 26%.  it sank to its lowest in 2016 at 14.4%, but rose in 2017 to 15.6% (658,000), compared to 10.7% (14.8 million) nationally in 2016 and 2017.  Michigan’s rate has consistently been higher than the national. In 2017 another 53,000 workers in Michigan were represented by a union for benefits but not a union member. Nationally this number was  1.6 million. [ii]

We support employees and their right to organize a union. Union must be protected and encouraged. We recognize that some unions have fallen into the snares of greed and corruption. These must be curtailed so  that the original purpose of the union is paramount. Right to Work Laws must be repealed.  Benefits obtained by labor unions should not be diminished or taken away.


 Chart 1.  Members of unions as a percent of employed in the United States and Michigan, 2007-2017


This chart is from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, cited below.



[i] “Right to work laws”, Wikipedia,

[ii] “Union Members in Michigan — 2017”,  U. S. Department of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics,

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