Right to Work repeal, prevailing wage clear Legislature, head to governor
- Michigan Democrats approved prominent labor bills and sent them to the governor
- Right-to-Work repeal would end a 2012 law that prohibits compulsory union dues or fees
- Prevailing wage restoration guarantees union-scale wages on government-funded construction jobs
LANSING —Michigan Democrats on Tuesday voted to repeal the state’s Right-to-Work law and restore prevailing wage rates, targeting major Republican labor practices despised by unions.
The bill package — House Bills 4004 and 4007 and Senate Bills 6 and 34 — cleared both chambers Tuesday. The House voted through the Senate legislation in party-line votes, and amended versions of the House bills were approved later Tuesday afternoon.
The legislation now moves to Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, a Democrat who has signaled she will sign the bills.
Democrats pushed the bills through the Legislature over protests from Republicans, who contend the changes will make Michigan less competitive for employers.
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Taken together, the legislation would end a 2012 law that prohibits compulsory union dues or fees and restore a construction-industry “prevailing wage” law the GOP repealed in 2018.
Supporters of the union-backed measures say it’s a restoration of Michigan workers’ rights and ensures they’re getting fair wages.
“I don’t understand why folks continue to get angry about the fact that we are trying to ensure that people in the state of Michigan can afford to live in the state,” Rep. Abraham Aiyash, D-Hamtramck, said on the House floor Tuesday.
Business groups and Republicans say the repeal would make Michigan less competitive for employers and force workers to pay for representation some don’t want. Conservative lawmakers argued Right-to-Work gave workers an important choice about whether to support a union.
“Forced union membership is bad for individual workers, and it’s bad for business,” Rep. Tom Kunse, R-Clare, said on the floor. “This plan will only hurt Michigan.”
In passing the Right-to-Work and prevailing wage measures, Democrats used a procedural move that likely would prevent opponents from repealing it with a ballot initiative. They added appropriations to the legislation to make it referendum-proof under the state Constitution.
In response, business groups are contemplating a ballot measure that would enshrine Right-to-Work in the state Constitution which, if passed, would circumvent the repeal.
Rep. Regina Weiss, D-Oak Park, said Democrats “don’t want … a lot of outside interests to come in and try to push something through.” If voters don’t agree, they can elect new representatives in the next election, she said.
“The hope is that folks in Michigan will see the benefits…and that they will continue to endorse these choices moving into the future,” she said.
Getting the legislation over the finish line Tuesday required perfect attendance from Democrats, who hold a slim majority over Republicans in both chambers.
Two representatives — Reps. Jason Hoskins, D-Southfield, and Lori Stone, D-Warren — were cordoned off in the House gallery away from other lawmakers and members of the public due to illness, but still showed up for votes.
One, Hoskins, had recently tested positive for COVID-19 with mild symptoms, said Amber McCann, a spokesperson for the House Democratic caucus.
It’s not the first time this term Democratic lawmakers have voted from the gallery despite a COVID-19 diagnosis. Hoskins’ presence in the chamber prompted criticism from House Republican Leader Matt Hall, R-Richland Township, who said he “can’t help but feel as though the rules have changed to help pass controversial votes by slim margins.”
The 2012 Right-to-Work law, passed when Republicans controlled the Legislature and the governor’s office, 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.
In the years that followed union representation in Michigan dwindled and union members complained that colleagues who didn’t pay dues were still able to take advantage of union workplace rules.
Under the repeal legislation, workers who don’t want to become union members would have to pay fees or leave their job if their union shop requires fee payment as a condition of employment.
The repeal only applies to contracts with private sector employers, such as automakers and manufacturers, because a 2018 Supreme Court decision prohibits compulsory dues or fee payment for public employees.
Democratic Michigan lawmakers passed bills repealing the policy for both the public and private sector anyway in the event that federal precedent changes.
Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer supports the repeal, and appears poised to sign the legislation even though her party employed practices that she and other Democrats condemned when Republicans were in power; most notably, making the bills referendum-proof by including appropriations.
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 recently 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."
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 Michigan analysis of campaign finance records.
Partisans on both side of the Right-to-Work debate have wielded studies to support their positions. Studies backed by labor unions show Right-to-Work laws lowered worker compensation, whereas business group-backed research shows the law benefits economic growth.
Manufacturing wages have increased in Michigan, but they have not kept up with inflation. Nationwide, half of the states with the biggest wage increases are Right-to-Work states.
The prevailing wage bill approved by Democrats, if signed, will restore a law that guarantees union-scale wages and benefits on any government-funded construction project, including at schools.
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. The new legislation would restore a similar mandate for local government projects.
Opponents of prevailing wage argue the policy increases construction costs and reduces local control.
But unions backing the legislation contend that a uniform prevailing wage policy will benefit workers and allow contractors to win construction contracts based on the craftsmanship and productivity of their workforce, not by lowballing how much they pay workers.
Projects financed by existing tax millages would not be impacted so long as they were in effect before the legislation takes effect under an amendment added by Democrats Tuesday. Construction workers would also be eligible for injunctive relief if prevailing wage is not met.
Rep. Graham Filler, R-Duplain Township, argued that opening up contractors to the possibility of third-party lawsuits is “prevailing wage on steroids.”
“I don’t know why this was included, if they felt that just (restoring) prevailing wage wasn’t enough, that they had to go next level and really make it unattractive to be a business in the state of Michigan,” he said.
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