With one of the highest unemployment levels in the U.S., in 2012 Michigan's governor took the bold step of making it a right to work state.

The law gives workers the choice to not pay union dues, and is thought to be business-friendly, a job creator and tax generator. But factories are still empty and jobs are still scarce.

Randy LeFevers has lived in the same Detroit neighbourhood his whole life and says “It used to be vibrant, as you can see most of the houses are gone in the neighbourhood, the area is dilapidated.”

The factory across the street used to be a lifeline for the modest area, and the same story echoes elsewhere in Detroit.

Rashida Tlaib, a Michigan state representative (D), says “If you know anything about Michigan, some of the foundations of building up the middle class was based on strong unions.”

Tlaib’s district office is always filled with people needing help, and she says those foundations crumbled when Governor Rick Snyder passed right to work.

“It was just terrible. The debate got so divisive…pretty much the whole capital was militarized. We had guns everywhere, law enforcement on horses and people felt like they were shut out from the legislature, the public process was completely denied them.”

Despite repeated requests, the Michigan Chamber of Commerce did not provide a list of companies that have relocated to the state because of the legislation.

But since right to work came into effect last March, Michigan's unemployment number has actually increased - suggesting some jobs are leaving.

Tlaib says “The rate in my district alone is 25 per cent unemployment, it’s not creating more jobs.”

Since Michigan became a right to work state, there's been an increase in another area as well - the underemployed.

That is individuals with skills and talents they can't use, forced to take jobs for low pay with menial work because there aren't any other opportunities out there, like Sharon Flynt-Watkins.

“For the last 20-25 years, I’ve worked in the health care industry doing project management, electronic medical record systems.”

That’s until a year and a half ago, when she was laid off and couldn't find a job anywhere, “It’s been really difficult. I've had to sell off a lot of things I had - jewellery - just to make my rent.”

Now the former health care manager is happy just to be working.

“I was used to making $30-$40 an hour and then I couldn't find a job like that, so now I’m working an $8 an hour job doing property management.”

Bob King, president of the United Auto Workers union, isn't surprised that non-union workers like Flynt-Watkins are feeling the pinch.

“It isn't just union members that benefit from stronger union contracts. It is small business owners, doctors, lawyers, beauty shops. They all benefit when workers have spendable income.”

And in right to work states, incomes are generally lower, in fact, 20 of the 24 right to work states have median household incomes below the U.S. national average, including Michigan.

Tlaib says “Right to work is not a job creator, and we're a proven case that it’s not.

Below Above
Right to work states with incomes above and below the U.S. median household income of $51,371.

North Carolina
South Carolina
South Dakota

North Dakota
Total: 20 Total: 4

Coming up in part four: An overview of the impact of right to work legislation and feedback from our viewers.