LANSING — Democrats on Tuesday approved bills to rescind Michigan’s 2012 “right-to-work” law, voting to again allow labor contracts that require workers to pay union fees as a condition of employment.
The Senate passed the legislation 20-17 on party lines, as union members cheered and clapped from the gallery. It also voted 20-17 to restore a law mandating “prevailing,” usually union-scale wages and benefits, on construction projects funded partly or wholly with state money.
The move followed House approval of bills last week. Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer will sign the measures after the House takes final votes on some of the Senate-passed measures next week. The bills would take effect in March 2024 because Senate Republicans in opposition refused to let them go into effect immediately.
The “right-to-work” repeal, which is opposed by business groups, would affect private-sector workplaces. The U.S. Supreme Court in 2018 ruled that government employees who are represented by unions but do not pay dues cannot be required to pay agency fees to cover unions’ costs to negotiate contracts.
Sen. Roger Hauck, a Mount Pleasant Republican, voted no. He said he was a member of the United Steelworkers Local 2-585 for 28 years and was elected as steward and chief steward to negotiate with management. He said he did not “bat an eye” when the law took effect a decade ago because “I knew the value of our union.”
“I didn’t believe then that those men and women should be forced into joining our union just to work alongside me, and I don’t believe it now,” he said. “Right-to-work shouldn’t affect any union in the state that’s doing it the right way. Make your case, prove your worth and the members will follow.”
Sen. John Cherry, a Flint Democrat, voted yes, criticizing the “freedom to freeload.” Another supporter, Democratic Sen. Darrin Camilleri of Wayne County’s Brownstown Township, called it an “unpopular, anti-union law.”
“With this repeal, we are making a future for our state’s workers, creating opportunity for the next generation of Michigan families and stating clearly that we are restoring the union promise in our state,” he said. “Today is a first step toward a new era of Michigan governance. This is in fact the people’s House, the people’s Senate, and will deliver on our promise to workers. We will not turn our backs on those who built this economy.”
Ron Bieber, president of the Michigan AFL-CIO, said it is time to reverse decades-long attacks on working people.
“The current worker-suppression laws in Michigan should be a source of shame,” he told the Senate Labor Committee during a Tuesday hearing. “They have absolutely nothing to do with good public policy but rather were just a power grab by the rich and powerful and greedy corporations.”
The “right-to-work” law, Bieber said, undermines unionized workers’ ability to collectively bargain for better pay and benefits and has “no impact” on businesses deciding to locate in the state or not. He said when the law’s defenders say it keeps Michigan competitive, that means workers will have lower wages and benefits.
But Wendy Block, senior vice president of business advocacy and member engagement for the Michigan Chamber of Commerce, said the law makes Michigan more competitive nationally and “especially with our neighboring states who also have these laws. It helps Michigan compete for desperately needed jobs and economic development projects.”
She said the law is a tool and certainly not a “silver bullet.”
“But if a company is choosing between a site in a right-to-work state and in another state without this law in place, right-to-work can positively impact that decision. It is a big factor. It puts your state in the game.”
The law, which took effect in 2013, was a blow for unions in what is considered the birthplace of the American labor movement.
In 2012, 629,000, or 16.6 percent, of workers were union members and 17.1 percent were represented by unions — figures that had been declining for decades. There were 1 million union members in 1989, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
In 2022, 589,000, or 14 percent, of workers were union members and 15.3 percent were represented by unions.
On Monday, Whitmer told reporters she would sign the repeal bills despite the inclusion of $2 million in spending that would shield them from an up-or-down voter referendum. She had criticized the tactic when Republicans used it when they were in power, and in 2019 she signed an executive directive pledging to veto legislation that circumvents the right to a referendum.
Regardless of whether the legislation is referendum-proof, “right-to-work” proponents are considering a potential 2024 ballot drive to enshrine the policy in the state constitution.
Michigan became the 24th “right-to-work” state when its law was enacted more than a decade ago. Wisconsin (2015), West Virginia (2016) and Kentucky (2017) followed suit. Missouri voters in 2018 rejected a “right-to-work” law that Republicans passed in 2017.
Before approving the prevailing wage bill, Democrats amended it to include $75,000 for implementation. That immunizes it from a referendum, too.
The legislation would require higher wages and benefits on state-funded buildings, schools, public works projects, roads and bridges. Covered workers would include those doing manual labor but not executive, administrative, professional, office or custodial employees.
Better wages already are mandated on many road and bridge projects because of a federal prevailing wage law. And a year ago, Whitmer’s administration began to require state contractors and subcontractors to pay prevailing wages on construction-based contracts issued by the Michigan Department of Technology, Management & Budget. The change was applied to contracts worth more than $50,000.
Democrats decided against expanding the bill to also mandate prevailing wages on economic development projects that get state grants or tax incentives, such as electric vehicle battery plants.
From Crain’s Detroit Business.