He advocates a socialist view of economics.
Yates was born in a small coal mining town about 40 miles north of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. His grandmother worked on a barge boat as a cook and a servant for families in Manhattan, Newport and other wealthy enclaves. His immediate family had a long history working at dangerous, unhealthy jobs in the coal mines. At the age of 14, his mother took a job unloading dynamite at the entrance of the coal mines. His mother, uncle and grandmother all suffered from severe asthma from the dust generated by the mines. His father suffered emphysema from inhaling asbestos and silica dust at work.
Life for the Yates was a difficult one. Yates' father did not live with the family; the only employment he could get was in a glass factory several miles away. The Yates home did not have running water or an indoor toilet, and was owned by the mining company. When Michael was one year old, his mother moved the family to be with his father.
These experiences had a deep impact on Yates, radicalizing him. As the Vietnam War intensified while he was a graduate student, his leftist tendencies strengthened:
I am sure that the experience of growing up in the heart of the working class and learning from my parents, and especially from my grandmother ... that life was not especially fair and always full of bad possibilities, helped shape my future take on life. Then what really transformed my thinking was the war in Vietnam and trying to be a good teacher. The war was so obviously evil and bore down most heavily upon working class youth that it made me think about things more deeply than I had before. It disillusioned me completely and forever about the government. And it made me aware that the media and the government lied almost as a matter of course. But it also opened my eyes to what was really going on in this country.
Yates attended graduate school at the University of Pittsburgh (UP) from 1967 to 1973, although only the first two years were full-time.
In the summer of 1968, Yates received his induction notice. With the encouragement of an academic advisor, he applied for a teaching position at UP's satellite campus in Johnstown, Pennsylvania. He was appointed an assistant professor in 1969. He worked part-time on his degree while teaching. Teaching deepened his radicalism, and he abandoned once and for all the neoclassical economics he had been taught. He also participated in union organizing activities, first with the maintenance and custodial workers on campus and then with the teachers.
Yates received his Ph.D. in economics from UP in 1976. He was given tenure by UP shortly after completing his doctorate.
Although Yates continued to teach at UP-Johnstown, in 1980 he began to teach workers and labor activists as well. He traveled all over the state of Pennsylvania and into West Virginia and Ohio, educating workers about labor unions, their right to form a union, and economics. He taught for many years in the Labor Center at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst, where his students were union officers and members.
Yates began a long-time relationship with Monthly Review in the mid-1970s. He has published many articles in the publication over the years. The relationship between Yates and MR's editorial staff grew close. Monthly Review Press eventually agreed to publish Yates' first book, Longer Hours, Fewer Jobs: Employment and Unemployment in the United States. Three more books and a co-edited volume followed. He also began to perform some editing work for the magazine.
During the mid-1980s Yates divorced his first wife and several years later married a second time. He has four children.
In 2001, Yates retired from his position at UP-Johnstown. He and his wife began to live an itinerant existence, spending significant amounts of time in Yellowstone National Park, Manhattan, Miami Beach and Portland, Oregon. In between, they have lived on the road, staying in motels, hotels, hostels, and short-term furnished housing. These travels were documented in the book Cheap Motels and a Hotplate. As of 2015, he and his wife have been on the road for fourteen years.
After his retirement, Yates became in 2001 associate editor at Monthly Review. In 2006, he became the editorial director of Monthly Review Press. As director, he has edited more than fifty titles.
Solely authored, co-authored, and edited worksUpward Struggle: A Bicentennial Tribute to Labor in Cambria and Somerset Counties. Harrisburg, PA: Bicentennial Pennsylvania, 1976. ASIN: B0045VKCIU
A Labor Law Handbook. 1st ed. Cambridge, Mass.: South End Press, 1987. ISBN 0-89608-261-X
Longer Hours, Fewer Jobs: Employment and Unemployment in the United States. New York: Monthly Review Press, 1994. ISBN 99961-64-03-9
Power on the Job: The Legal Rights of Working People. Cambridge, Mass.: South End Press, 1994. ISBN 0-89608-498-1
Why Unions Matter. New York: Monthly Review Press, 1998. ISBN 0-85345-929-0
Naming the System: Inequality and Work in the Global Economy. New York: Monthly Review Press, 2003. ISBN 1-58367-079-3
Cheap Motels and a Hot Plate: An Economist's Travelogue. New York: Monthly Review Press, 2007. ISBN 1-58367-143-9
More Unequal: Aspects of Class in the United States. New York: Monthly Review Press, 2007. ISBN 1-58367-159-5
In and Out of the Working Class. Winnipeg: Arbeiter Ring Publishing, 2009. ISBN 1-894037-35-9
Why Unions Matter, 2nd edition. New York: Monthly Review Press, 2009. ISBN 978-1583671900 The ABCs of the Economic Crisis: What Working People Need to Know
The ABCs of the Economic Crisis: What Working People Need to Know (with Fred Magdoff). New York: Monthly Review Press, 2009. ISBN 978-1583671955
Wisconsin Uprising: Labor Fights Back. New York: Monthly Review Press, 2012. ISBN 978-1583672808
A Freedom Budget for All Americans: Recapturing the Promise of the Civil Rights Movement in the Struggle for Economic Justice Today (with Paul Le Blanc). New York: Monthly Review Press, 2013. ISBN 978-1583673607
The Great Inequality. London: Routledge. 2016.ISBN 978-1138183452
Meiksins Wood, Ellen; Meiksins, Peter; and Yates, Michael D., eds. Rising from the Ashes?: Labor in the Age of "Global" Capitalism. New York: Monthly Review Press, 1998. ISBN 0-85345-939-8