Crain's Detroit: Marick Masters on labor strife in Southeast Michigan

Thanks to a strong economy and businesses' difficulty in finding talent, power has shifted to employees. Labor strife appears on the rise in Southeast Michigan. On Sept. 17, nurses at the University of Michigan voted to authorize a three-day work stoppage to protest "ongoing and continuous violations of their workplace rights." Two days later, 98 percent of the 160 housekeepers, servers, cooks and door attendants represented by Detroit-based hospitality union Unite Here Local 24 voted in favor of a strike at the Westin Book Cadillac in Detroit. And more than 160 road projects in Michigan were halted for nearly four weeks after a union of heavy equipment operators stopped working. With the unemployment rate in Michigan at 4.1 percent in August, the lowest it's been in nearly 20 years, and workers in short supply, unions appear to control more leverage than in the recent past, officials said. "There are always going to be work stoppages, but strikes are a rarely invoked weapon these days," said Marick Masters, director of Wayne State University's Labor@Wayne and professor of business and political science. "This is reflective of a major shift in the broader environment." Masters believes there's pressure coming from union members to "play catch-up" from decades of wage stagnation in a tight market. On Sept. 6, Michigan's Republican-led Legislature approved citizen-initiated legislation to raise the state's minimum wage to $12 per hour in 2019, up from the current $9.25 per hour. Masters said workers have taken this route because employers have become less willing to offer wage movement and other benefits as unions have weakened. "It's a perfect storm of economics and politics that have stiffened employers' resolve," Masters said. "Because employers have protected their interests from foreign competition and an exodus of jobs, there's the impact of wage stagnation. Which means employers have pretty much held the line on both prices and wages. All of this together means a situation that doesn't favor unions at the same time their ranks have declined dramatically. So, no, I don't see a groundswell of union activity happening."

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