Michigan House votes to repeal Right-to-Work, restore prevailing wage
- House Democrats advance bills to repeal 2012 right-to-work law
- Repeal bill now heads to full House for vote
- Business groups argue repeal will hurt Michigan economy
March 24: Whitmer signs Right-to-Work repeal, prevailing wage restoration
March 14: Right-to-Work repeal soon headed to Gov. Gretchen Whitmer. Now what?
March 9: Michigan Right-to-Work backers plot ballot proposal as Dems pursue repeal
March 9: What is Michigan Right-to-Work: How law impacted wages, jobs, unions
LANSING — House Democrats on Wednesday voted to repeal the state's Right-to-Work law, rejecting a major Republican policy barely two months after taking control of the Legislature.
The legislation, now headed to the Senate for final votes as early as next week, would end a 2012 law that prohibits compulsory union dues or fees. The House also voted to restore a construction-industry “prevailing wage” law the GOP repealed in 2018.
Democrats touted the union-backed measure as a restoration of worker rights to collectively bargain for wages, benefits and workplace safety.
“The so-called Right-to-Work law was designed not to give freedom to workers but to weaken their bargaining power and increase the profits of the few,” state Rep. Dylan Wegela, D-Garden City, argued in a floor speech.
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The repeal bills passed the House in a series of 56-53, party-line votes marked by uniform opposition from Republicans, who argued that Right-to-Work gave workers an important choice whether to support a union and made Michigan more attractive to job creators.
The bills would again allow labor contracts that require union dues or fees as a condition of employment, and that’s a mistake, argued Rep. Ann Bollin, R-Brighton Township.
“Forced participation goes against everything we stand for: life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,” Bollin argued in a floor speech.
The repeal legislation, as amended Wednesday, includes $2 million that Democrats say would help the state educate businesses about the proposed labor law changes. The money would also make the bills referendum-proof, preventing a future ballot initiative to overturn them.
Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer supports the repeal, but in the past has blasted GOP efforts to make policy bills referendum-proof by including appropriations, decrying it as a form of legislative "abuse."
In her 2018 campaign for governor, Whitmer promised to veto any such measures. She renewed that pledge in a 2019 executive directive, saying, "I intend to veto legislation that circumvents the right to a referendum.”
Asked if the governor would veto the Right-to-Work repeal because House Democrats added an appropriation, Whitmer spokesperson Bobby Leddy said only that the administration supports "restoring worker rights and will be watching the legislation closely as it moves through the Legislature."
Democrats floated a modified version of the Right-to-Work repeal legislation earlier Wednesday that would have allowed teacher unions to go on strike during the school year and lifted several restrictions on education contract bargaining.
Those drafts were shared with Republicans by “mistake" and were never seriously considered by House Democrats, spokesperson Amber McCann told reporters prior to the vote. She acknowledged that superintendents around the state had called to complain about the strike language.
House Minority Leader Matt Hall, R-Richland Township, blasted Democrats for even drafting the modified legislation and argued the version ultimately approved later Wednesday was not much better.
"This is the beginning of the Democrat overreach that's going to lead to their demise and the Republicans taking back the House,” Hall said, pointing to the 2024 election cycle. "It starts here today."
‘A clear message’
Democrats approved the repeal legislation at around 8:30 p.m., capping a day-long debate that began with a 9 a.m. hearing before the House Labor Committee.
Twelve years after thousands of union members protested on the Capitol lawn as the GOP made Michigan a Right-to-Work state, dozens flooded the House Office Building for Wednesday’s the committee meeting, packing the small hearing room and several overflow rooms.
They applauded as Democrats touted the bills. And they laughed as Republicans questioned the process and policy, arguing a repeal would make Michigan less competitive and hurt the economy.
Voters who elected Democratic majorities last fall "sent a clear message" they favor a "pro-worker and pro-working families" Legislature, sponsoring Rep. Regina Weiss said as she outlined her Right-to-Work repeal legislation in committee.
Right-to-Work was "a direct attack on organized labor, making it incredibly difficult for unions to have the necessary resources to provide adequate representation to their members," argued Weiss, D-Oak Park.
Repealing the law would “restore workers’ rights and freedoms to organize and collectively bargain for better wages, benefits and working conditions,” she said.
Republicans bashed the Right-to-Work repeal legislation and early Wednesday signified an intent to present a unified front on the House floor, where Democrats hold a two-seat majority.
"If Democrats are going to do it, it's going to be their fingerprints, not ours," state Rep. Andrew Beeler, R-Port Huron, told Bridge Michigan before the committee hearing.
Democrats are rushing the repeal bills because "they understand this will make Michigan less competitive," he argued. "It's a worker freedom thing. And it's a competitiveness thing. There's no way to defend the fact that this will make Michigan less competitive."
Two Republicans on the Labor Committee voted against the repeal. Rep. Mike Mueller, R-Linden, chose to “pass” instead of vote in committee, telling reporters he hoped to see some sort of bipartisan compromise, but he ultimately voted against the legislation on the House floor.
The 2012 law prohibits labor contracts that require union fees or dues as a condition of employment. Signed by then-Gov. Rick Snyder, the statute was a major blow to unions in a state touted as the birthplace of the modern labor movement.
Under the repeal legislation, workers at a unionized business who chose not to pay membership dues would still be required to pay an equivalent service fee to "share fairly in the financial support" of collective bargaining efforts.
“This is a matter of freeloaders of the system being allowed to take advantage of bargained-for benefits without paying their fair share,” said Rep. Joey Andrews, D-St. Joseph, who voted for the repeal.
Prior to 2013, MIchigan had allowed employment contracts that require union dues or fees across all sectors. But Right-to-Work repeal would only affect contracts with private employers, like automakers and other manufacturers.
The Supreme Court, in a landmark 2018 decision, prohibited mandatory union fees at public sector employers, like schools and governments.
One House bill approved Wednesday would repeal right-to-work for the public sector if that Supreme Court decision is ever reversed.
Businesses warn against repeal
Several business groups urged Democrats to leave the Right-to-Work law in place for the private sector, arguing it is an important tool for the state to land major investments by job creators.
New electric vehicle and battery projects are going "almost exclusively Right-to-Work states,” David Worthams, employment policy director of the Michigan Manufacturers Association, told lawmakers in written testimony.
“It is clear to us that if Michigan loses its decade-long status as a Right-to-Work state, Michigan will remove itself from the list of states for potential new investment for both companies outside of Michigan and those who are already here,” he wrote.
Jonas Peterson, CEO of Southwest Michigan First, told lawmakers that his economic development group routinely talks to corporate site selectors who say “Right-to-Work makes states move competitive.”
“They also tell us that for some job creation projects, states that do not have Right-to-Work are simply not considered,” he said. “We're not even in the game.”
But Democrats noted companies that use union labor have expanded in Michigan. Ford is developing a $2.5 billion battery facility near Marshall that could employ at least 2,500 people. The company won more than $1 billion state incentives for the project, and Michigan lawmakers last week approved a spending bill that will pump another $630 million into related site development.
Jessica Smith, a United Food and Commercial Workers union member who is a Kroger meat department manager, told lawmakers the 2012 Right-to-Work law made her feel she was “less important than my employer’s bottom line.”
Having union backing allows workers to speak up about unsafe work conditions without fear of arbitrary retaliation, Smith said. But giving bargained benefits to non-union members has caused a workplace divide” and “anger,” she said.
State Rep. Doug Wozniak, a Shelby Township Republican who voted against the repeal bill in committee, noted that Michigan is one of 28 states with a Right-to-Work law and asked Smith why those statutes appear popular in state Legislatures.
"Because laws are passed by politicians, and many times politicians get to hear from the highest bidder,” Smith said to loud applause from union members in a neighboring overflow room.
Unions backing the Right-to-Work repeal are major donors to Democrats. Five of the state's largest unions made $3 million in political contributions across Michigan during the election, all but $51,000 of which went to Democrats, according to a recent Bridge analysis.
A push to restore prevailing wage
In a late-Wednesday vote, House Democrats approved a separate bill to restore a prevailing wage law that would guarantee union-scale wages and benefits on any government-funded construction project, including schools.
That measure, passed in 56-53 vote without any Republican support, is also headed to the Senate for consideration as early as next week.
The state’s former Republican-led Legislature repealed the law in 2018 after an expensive petition drive led by ABC Michigan, which represents non-union construction contractors across the state.
Whitmer unilaterally restored prevailing wage rules for state-funded projects in 2021, a move that infuriated Republicans, but the new legislation would restore a similar mandate for local government projects.
Sponsoring Rep. Brenda Carter, D-Pontiac, argued that the wage and benefits guarantee would encourage workers to join the building and construction trades and help the state address a “severe shortage” in those fields.
Critics, including GOP state Rep. Tom Kunse of Clare, counter that prevailing wage inflates the cost of taxpayer-funded construction projects.
But Carter argued the opposite is true — that higher pay leads to a more skilled workforce less likely to make costly mistakes.
Prevailing wage does increase costs, and a forthcoming study from the Mackinac Center for Public Policy will show that, according to Michael LaFaive, fiscal policy director for the free-market think tank.
“It’s effectively a transfer of wealth from many workers to a favored few, and you saw some of those favored few testify here today,” LaFaive told Bridge after the hearing, referencing unions who spoke in support of the legislation.
Restoring a statewide mandate for prevailing wage will also reduce local control, argued Jimmy Greene, director of ABC Michigan.
"In a purple state, you'd almost want local control," he said, noting local governments can and still have adopted their own prevailing wage policies. "What's good for Detroit is not necessarily good for Midland.”
But unions backing the legislation contend that a uniform prevailing wage policy will ultimately benefit workers and allow contractors to win jobs based on the craftsmanship and productivity of their workforce, not just pay.
“It allows us to compete on a level playing field” with non-union contractors, John Perkins, a business representative for Michigan Regional Council of Carpenters and Millwrights told Bridge. “So that way we're competing on the quality of the work and not off of our member's backs.”
Union leaders and members, who watched from the House gallery and burst into applause as Democrats approved the Right-to-Work repeal and prevailing wage bills, celebrated what they called a new tone in Lansing.
“It’s awesome,” Sam Cardena, business manager for the Pipefitters Local 636 Union told Bridge. “Legislators are now actually representing the working men and women of the state of Michigan.”
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