LANSING, Michigan — A fight brewing over the future of Michigan's "right-to-work" law is drawing national attention as Democratic lawmakers in Lansing eye repealing the law Republicans passed just over a decade ago allowing workers in unionized jobs to opt out of paying union dues and fees.
When Republican lawmakers made Michigan a "right-to-work" state in 2012, thousands of protesters massed at the Capitol while police on horseback and in riot gear tried to control the scuffles that broke out.
Michigan was not the first state to enact right-to-work. But it is a state steeped in labor history now poised to become the first state in nearly 60 years to ditch such a law, with Democrats controlling the executive and legislative branches of state government for the first time in four decades.
"Michigan should be first," said Jennifer Root, the executive director of SEIU (Service Employees International Union) Michigan, which represents nearly 30,000 public and private sector workers. "Michigan and unions in this state built the middle class in this country. There's no reason we can't do it again."
Others are pushing back, and not just in Michigan. "Are we going to fight them? You betcha, we're going to fight," said Mark Mix, president of the National Right to Work Committee, based in Virginia. "I think it's going to be a big one."
Workers should be able to choose whether part of their pay goes to support a union, argue those who defend right-to-work laws. But opponents say all employees benefit from the contracts unions negotiate, so there should be no "free riders" who enjoy the benefits without contributing to the cost.
Democratic leaders have not said how quickly they plan to vote on the issue, but bills to repeal right-to-work, with Democratic sponsors from both chambers, were among the first announced when the new legislative session began Wednesday. Republicans, meanwhile, have warned that kicking off the session with repealing right-to-work could threaten bipartisan cooperation on future issues.
Planning meetings to protect the law have already begun among Michigan groups that include the Michigan Freedom Fund, which is backed by the wealthy DeVos family, and Michigan chapters of Americans for Prosperity, the National Federation of Independent Business, and Associated Builders and Contractors, said Jimmy Greene, president of ABC of Michigan, who attended a strategy meeting last week.
Before the House and Senate convened Wednesday for the first time in 2023, the conservative Mackinac Center for Public Policy had already erected billboards near Detroit, Lansing, Flint and Grand Rapids and launched radio and digital ads and a website touting right-to-work as a boon for Michigan workers.
"Right-to-work saves Michigan workers millions of dollars every year," reads one of the billboards in Detroit.
Union leaders say that message is false and won't go unanswered. They hope their numbers can make up for what they see as a financial mismatch in getting their message out.
Ron Bieber, president of the Michigan AFL-CIO, described right-to-work as an uncalled-for attack on working men and women. "We hope to work with Gov. (Gretchen) Whitmer and the Democratic Legislature to restore the balance of power, level the playing field, and once again give Michigan's working families a fair shot at a chance for a decent life," Bieber said in a statement.
The impact of right-to-work
Unionization rates in Michigan fell before GOP lawmakers made it a right-to-work state. But the share of Michigan workers who are union members has continued to decline since then. Today, tens of thousands of workers protected by union agreements don't provide any financial support to the union.
Union membership, in gradual decline for decades, took a similar dip in Michigan in the 10 years before the passage of right-to-work, having stood at just over 21% in 2002, according to federal data compiled by researchers available at unionstats.com. In 2012, nearly 17% of Michigan workers were union members. By 2021, the most recent year for which data is available, that share stood at just over 13%.
Also in 2021, more than 80,000 Michigan workers covered by a collective bargaining agreement were not dues-paying union members, including nearly 46,000 in the private sector.
It's the private sector numbers that are relevant if Michigan's right-to-work law is repealed. That's because of a 2018 U.S. Supreme Court decision barring public sector unions from requiring employees covered by collective bargaining agreements to pay dues. Any repeal would only affect Michigan workers in the private sector, where slightly more than 9% were union members in 2021, compared with just over 11% in 2012.
UAW President Ray Curry called the passage of right-to-work in Michigan a "travesty" during a recent event with political and industry leaders celebrating the latest investments in Michigan's growing electric vehicle production. Curry said that right-to-work in Michigan did not lead to a surge in workers covered by UAW contracts leaving the union, even amid a corruption scandal that led to prison terms for two former UAW presidents and other union officials. Other unions report a decline in membership under right-to-work in Michigan. Labor leaders blame the law for eroding workers' rights and stagnant wages.
While most Michigan employees do not hold jobs at workplaces covered by collective bargaining agreements, labor advocates argue that a rising tide lifts all boats: Repealing right-to-work would strengthen unions, which forces employers across the board to keep pace with higher wages and better benefits that unions are able to secure during bargaining.
Amanda Fisher, state director of NFIB Michigan, which lobbies for small businesses in Michigan, said most employers, especially small ones, don't want or need a union acting as an intermediary between them and their employees. At workplaces that do have unions, right-to-work helps ensure unions are more responsive to workers' needs, because if union leaders are not effective, members can stop paying their dues, Fisher said. "Workplace freedom is just better for everybody."
Right-to-work proponents also see the law as key to attracting businesses to locate in Michigan. But comparing Michigan's performance in attracting new manufacturing industry before and after the passage of right-to-work is fraught with complications such as the national recession that gripped not just Michigan but the entire nation for most of the decade before 2010 and the payment by states of massive tax incentives that economic development directors frequently cite as a key component in landing new industries. Mix says Michigan over the last decade has done significantly better than non-right-to-work states, on average, in attracting new manufacturing jobs. Yet a state such as Washington, which has no right-to-work law, has historically seen a strong manufacturing sector, along with high wages.
For both sides, the fight over repealing right-to-work in Michigan would partly be about sending a message in a country that is split over the issue, with 27 out of 50 states having such a law in place.
Indiana was the last state to repeal a right-to-work law. It repealed its 1957 law in 1965, but then went on to pass a new right-to-work law in 2012, which remains in place.
Corporate interests opposing the repeal "don't want to give an inch, because they understand that once it's done in Michigan, it can happen elsewhere," said Root, of the SEIU.
Wendy Block, vice president of business advocacy and member engagement at the Michigan Chamber of Commerce, said protecting right-to-work is a top priority for her group, seen as Michigan's most powerful business lobby.
"It seems that all eyes are on Michigan and looking to see what will happen," Block said. "I'm not so sure that if Michigan goes (with a repeal), other states will follow suit. I think in fact other states will try to pounce on the opportunity that they could have to lure jobs and new economic development projects away from Michigan and into their states."
Block said she's not convinced Democrats have the votes to pass the measure and they would be better off tackling priorities with bipartisan support, which she said include expanding the Earned Income Tax Credit and increasing affordable child care, housing, and transportation.
Union leaders, meanwhile, hope repealing right-to-work is the beginning of a shift in labor policy in Michigan. "For us, repealing right-to-work is the floor, not the ceiling," Root said.
A question of timing
It's unclear how quickly Democrats will try to tackle the contentious issue. Some lawmakers and union leaders say sending the repeal to Whitmer should be at or near the top of a decades-long list of pent-up priorities. Others see benefits to taking a slower approach in a Legislature where Democrats hold the slimmest of majorities — 56-54 in the House and 20-18 in the Senate. Those slim majorities mean any change to the law would not take effect until early next year.
Democratic lawmakers unanimously opposed the law when it was rammed through the Legislature in December 2012. More than a decade later, Democratic legislators empowered by their new majorities in Lansing face a new question: Will they align once again to repeal right-to-work?
No Democrat has publicly said they would vote no on a repeal. It's also possible some Republicans could support a repeal. In 2012, 10 GOP lawmakers — six in the House and four in the Senate — voted no.
State Sen. Ed McBroom, R-Vulcan, was among the Republicans who voted against right-to-work, in part, because he saw the ability of workers who don't pay union dues to still benefit from union protections as unfair. But he doesn't necessarily favor a straightforward repeal of the policy.
"I didn't like what was offered in 2012, and I don't like going back to what we had in 2012," he said. "I hope to be able to offer some opportunities for compromise if the bill does come forward and see if there's room for just truly reforming things instead of just burning down the status quo every time."
Newly elected state Rep. Joey Andrews, D-St. Joseph, who previously worked as a policy analyst for the Michigan AFL-CIO, said he doesn't have the sense that Democrats are "anything other than unified" on repealing the measure. "I don't get the sense that anybody’s got cold feet about it," he said. "I mean we all know it’s going to trigger a fight with certain business and corporate interest groups, but what else is new?"
He wants Democrats to seize what he sees as a historic opportunity. He called right-to-work an "anomaly" against the backdrop of Michigan’s labor history.
A week before lawmakers kicked off the legislative session, state Rep. Rachel Hood, D-Grand Rapids, cast doubt on Democratic support for repealing right-to-work in a Legislature where her party holds narrow two-seat majorities in both chambers. "Think about how disastrous if it came to the floor and it didn’t pass?" she said. "We need to make sure we have the votes. Can we do that on day one? That’s a question that I don't think anybody has answered." She suggested it would be wise for Democrats to wait to take action on the issue.
She said it will be important for the Democratic caucus to empower new members who hail from districts home to moderate voters to confidently respond to angry constituents.
Some Democratic lawmakers from competitive districts say they already made their support for the change known on the campaign trail.
State Rep. Jenn Hill, D-Marquette, stood outside the Capitol in 2012 to protest right-to-work. "I absolutely made sure folks knew that when I was campaigning," she said. While knocking on doors, she said she heard from residents that repealing the law was important to them.
Any legislation to repeal right-to-work would eventually land on Whitmer's desk. Whitmer did not include repealing right-to-work among the priorities she highlighted in her second inaugural address on the state of the Capitol on Jan. 1.
But Whitmer was a leader of the fight against the legislation in 2012, as Senate minority leader. She has said that Michiganders should have no doubt where she stands on signing a repeal.
Free Press staff writer Dave Boucher contributed to this report.
Contact Paul Egan: 517-372-8660 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @paulegan4.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Historic fight brewing over repeal of Michigan's 'right-to-work' law