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Michigan Democrats target Right-to-Work: ‘Golden opportunity’ or ‘nuclear war’?

inside the state capitol
Michigan Democrats take control of the state House and Senate in January and say repealing Right-to-Work laws are a top priority. (ehrlif / Shutterstock.com)
Bridge Michigan
Business Watch
Michigan Democrats target Right-to-Work: ‘Golden opportunity’ or ‘nuclear war’?
  • Michigan became a Right-to-Work state in 2012 during a lame-duck session
  • Democrats now could repeal the law, with some saying it’s a ‘golden opportunity’
  • Some business leaders say doing so would make the state less competitive

Nov. 16: Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s to-do list: gun control, tax cuts, Right-to-Work repeal

Repealing Right-to-Work legislation in Michigan could be tops on Democrats’ agenda when they take control of the Legislature in 2023 and Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer begins her second time.

The state’s law allowing workers to opt out of paying dues in union-represented jobs but still receive benefits has been on the books since 2013. It was a galvanizing moment, cheered by conservatives and business leaders, but prompting thousands to protest in Lansing.

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After Tuesday’s election, state Sen. Dayna Polehanki and other Democrats said that repealing the law will be a priority after the party assumes leadership of the state House, Senate and governor’s office for the first time since 1984.

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It’s still a huge political issue. This week, Illinois voters passed a constitutional amendment barring the creation of Right-to-Work laws, while Tennessee residents passed a separate measure to strengthen its Right-to-Work law and protect against compulsory union membership. 

But a repeal in Michigan wouldn’t be without controversy.  One prominent business leader says doing so will set off “nuclear war.”

Here is what to know:

Michigan Right-to-Work took effect in March 2013

Former Gov. Rick Snyder signed the bills into law during the December 2012 “lame duck” session that allowed both public and private employees to work without joining a labor union or paying dues. 

Snyder had not supported Right-to-Work during his campaign or as he took office in January 2011. He called it a divisive issue and repeatedly said it wasn’t on his agenda, despite efforts to elevate it, including by west Michigan business leaders, such as Doug DeVos, and then-Rep. Mike Shirkey, R-Clarklake, who is now state Senate majority leader. 

However, the issue escalated after a petition drive to place the “Protect Our Jobs” amendment on the state Constitution, a measure that would “grant public and private employees the constitutional right to organize and bargain collectively through labor unions.”

The anti Right-to-Work proposal was on the 2012 statewide ballot after a petition drive supported by a coalition of unions, but voters defeated it by a wide margin.

A month later, Michigan became the 24th state to enact Right-to-Work legislation. Since then, Kentucky, Wisconsin and West Virginia also became Right-to-Work states. Ohio also allows employees to opt out of unions, but unions can charge them a fee.

 

Union membership decreased

Union membership has fallen dramatically in Michigan since the law passed. Once a national leader in membership, the state is now just a little better than the national average.

In 2013, the year Right-to-Work went into effect in Michigan, 16.3 percent of state workers belonged to a union. A year later, that fell to 14.5 percent. It’s now 13.3 percent.

During that same time, union membership nationwide fell to 10.3 percent from 11.3 percent. 

The decline in union workers comes as manufacturing jobs grew in Michigan since the Right-to-Work legislation took effect. There were 609,000 manufacturing jobs in Michigan in September, compared to 538,800 in January 2013.

However, many union workers in the state are not involved in private manufacturing or building trades. 

The largest public union in Michigan is the Michigan Education Association, which went from about 118,000 working members to 78,000, the free-market Mackinac Center for Public Policy reported in 2020.

Whitmer said she will prioritize the state’s economy 

Doing that will include prioritizing efforts to retain and increase the state’s automotive jobs, Whitmer said, which has been a driver of Michigan’s bipartisan Strategic Outreach and Attraction Reserve (SOAR) Fund. The initial $1 billion fund was increased to $1.6 billion last fall. 

“I promise to work with anyone, compete and win against anyone,” Whitmer said early Wednesday after polls closed.

Whitmer has been a staunch ally of unions, announcing last year that Michigan will require contractors to pay union-level wages and benefits to workers on state-funded construction projects.

When she first ran for governor in 2018, her economic platform included calling to overturn Right-to-Work, saying "had nothing to do with rights or work.”

Like other Democrats, labor is one of Whitmer’s biggest supporters and donors, with unions such as the Michigan Education Association, Michigan Laborers District Council, Michigan Regional Council of Carpenters & Millwrights, Service Employees International Union and others all donating more than $100,000 apiece to her re-election effort, according to followthemoney.org.

A Right-to-Work architect says revisiting issue would be ‘nuclear war’

Rich Studley, former president of the Michigan Chamber of Commerce, helped to lead the initiative for the state’s Right-to-Work law. He said the initiative became a stronger priority as Indiana adopted a similar law in early 2012.

Studley said he is “stunned” that Right-to-Work is on Democrats’ agenda. He described the action as like starting “a nuclear war.”

“Why on earth would you start with a bitter, partisan, divided battle?” he said.

Reopening the issue, Studley said, would come as the state is making strides in its competitiveness to new businesses.  Public unions, at the same time, have improved some of their messaging to members about the value of joining a union, he added.

“How is (revisiting Right-to-Work) a positive message to send to other states and foreign countries that are thinking about investing in Michigan (by saying) that we'd rather fight with each other unnecessarily than to work together to strengthen our competitive position?” Studley said.

Democrats think this is a ‘golden opportunity’

Greg Bowens, a Democratic political consultant in Metro Detroit, said he had several discussions with labor leaders about Right-to-Work during Whitmer’s campaign party in Detroit on Tuesday.

“When you say this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, that’s an understatement,” Bowens said, referring to the Democratic majority.

Changes in the workplace — such as working from home— could make unionization more appealing to a new generation of workers in roles that haven’t typically been unionized, he said. 

“The modern-day workplace is not limited to the factory floor or three walls of a cubicle,” Bowens said. 

Repealing Right-to-Work in Michigan would be a good step, he said, “if it’s framed in a way that helps us grow Michigan’s economy and create better economic conditions for working people.”

Michigan can still compete with other states for jobs if it repeals the law, Bowens said.

“There’s a balance you can strike,” he said. “This is a golden opportunity, and not one we can take for granted.”

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