Amid Protests, Michigan Leaders Press for Quick Enactment of Right-to-Work Legislation

By: - December 7, 2012 12:00 am

Michigan is poised to become the 24th “right-to-work” state after a day of protests and fast action in Lansing Thursday (December 6). The House and Senate passed versions of the legislation, which would make it illegal to require workers to pay union fees as a condition of their employment.

Earlier in the day, Republican Governor Rick Snyder sent shockwaves through Lansing by coming out strongly in favor of right-to-work. Michigan is home of the powerful United Auto Workers union and has remained a labor stronghold even as unions in many neighboring states have seen precipitous drops in membership.

Snyder had repeatedly discouraged legislative leaders from pursuing the topic, calling it “divisive” and saying that it was not on his agenda. But on Tuesday he erased any doubt that he would sign the legislation if it reached his desk and, in fact, launched a campaign espousing its merits.

In a press conference with legislative leaders, Snyder called the legislation “pro-worker” and said it will help boost Michigan’s economy. The bill would apply to both private- and public-sector workers but exempts police and firefighter unions.

Business leaders who have told Snyder that they wouldn’t consider Michigan for relocation or expansion have helped sway his thinking, he said. “They excluded any state that didn’t give workers the freedom to choose,” he said. “That’s a huge loss of opportunity.” 

The governor also said he’s been impressed  by the success that Indiana has had in developing a pipeline of new business development since it became the first industrial Midwestern state to pass right-to-work legislation last January.

Thousands of union protesters gathered at the state capitol as union leaders vowed to do everything in their power to prevent the legislation from taking effect.

 “The governor says it’s divisive,” says Nick Ciaramitaro, director of legislation and public policy for American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Council 25. “It is divisive, but I think divisive is an understatement.” Republicans hold majorities in both chambers and need only a simple majority to conduct business, so stalling passage by refusing to participate in the legislative process is not an option, as has happened during debates about union rights in other states.

Snyder emphasized that he still supports collective bargaining rights but believes workers should be able to choose whether they want to associate with a union.

Currently, workers cannot be forced to belong to a union but can be required to pay fees as a condition of their employment. Union leaders say this system is necessary because they are required by law to provide certain services and representation for workers regardless of whether the individual chooses to join their union.

Unions unsuccessfully pushed for a November ballot measure that would have enshrined collective bargaining rights in the state constitution, invalidating more than a hundred state laws and making passage of a right-to-work law impossible. That expensive battle, which the governor urged unions not to fight, infuriated the business community, which had previously been largely neutral on right-to-work legislation.

When the Michigan Chamber of Commerce came out in favor of right-to-work legislation Monday, President Rich Studley cited the ballot measure as the reason for the decision. “You can’t un-spill milk,” Rich Studley told the Detroit Free Press. “Like the governor, this was not on our list of things to do, but now it is.”

Ciaramitaro says he believes the governor’s decision to support the legislation is also directly related to the ballot measure fight.  “This has nothing to do with public policy or job creation,” he says. “This is clearly retribution. The governor is angry that the labor movement dared to ask for constitutional protection for the right to collective bargaining.”

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Melissa Maynard

Melissa Maynard oversees the Pew state fiscal health project’s Fiscal 50 online resource, which helps policymakers understand fiscal, economic, and demographic trends affecting their states by tracking tax revenue, reserves, employment rates, Medicaid spending, and other issues important to long-term fiscal health.