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Michigan right-to-work repeal a major turnabout

A truck parked in front of the Michigan Capitol Tuesday supports repeal of the state's right-to-work law.
Rick Pluta
Michigan Public Radio Network
A truck parked in front of the Michigan Capitol Tuesday supports repeal of the state's right-to-work law.

In a dramatic turnabout, it appears Michigan is about to repeal its right-to-work law. The Legislature’s approval of that this week is a big win for unions in a state that’s considered a cradle of the labor movement.

Michigan has a storied union history – including battles to organize auto plants going back to the 1930s and labor becoming a powerful political force in the state. So it was a gut punch to labor when the Republican-led state Legislature in 2012 voted to make Michigan a right-to-work state and the legislation was quickly signed by a Republican governor.

So union activists were thrilled this week as they witnessed a Legislature controlled now by Democrats voting to repeal Michigan’s right to work law and sending it to Governor Gretchen Whitmer. The Democratic governor has made scrapping the law a priority.

“It’s huge,” said Michigan AFL-CIO President Ron Bieber on the day he’s been waiting for and working toward for over a decade. “It’s huge for the entire labor movement nationally to have a victory for working people and make progress for a change.”

Right-to-work laws allow workers in a union shop to opt out of paying union dues. Unions often call that the “right to freeload” because those workers can get many of the benefits of union membership without actually belonging to the union.

This is the first time in nearly six decades that a state legislature has voted to repeal a right-to-work law.

Republican state Senator Thomas Albert (Lowell) said repealing right-to-work is a mistake. He said it should be up to workers to decide whether they want to be part of a union and also that it will be bad for business.

“Businesses that are already here are not going to grow and businesses that are looking to develop and find a good place to work and establish some roots, they’re going to go somewhere else,” he told Michigan Public Radio.

That’s a false choice, said Democratic state Representative Regina Weiss (Oak Park), who sponsored one of the right-to-work repeal bills.

“You don’t have to choose to support business and then choose to screw over workers,” she said. “You can support business, you can support workers at the same time. And supporting workers also actually helps support investments into our economy.”

The bigger danger is uncertainty, says Sandy Baruah, the president of the Detroit Regional Chamber. It’s a business group, but one of its stated missions is promoting harmonious union-management relationships. He said businesses consider right-to-work to be a net gain, but the state needs to be consistent.

“Consistency in itself is hugely important,” he said, but Michigan isn’t consistent and fostering more stability in taxes and other costs, for example, would help counter the effects of repealing right to work. “We change from governor to governor, sometimes even within a governor’s time in office.”

Baruah said that shifting with the political winds puts Michigan at a disadvantage against red states like Texas, Tennessee, and South Carolina and higher-tax blue states like Massachusetts.

Michigan Democrats’ legislative majorities are very, very thin – one vote apiece on the House and the Senate. Control could easily shift in the future. Also, some right-to-work advocates are considering a ballot drive to reverse what the Legislature just did and ask voters to put a right to work amendment in the Michigan Constitution.

Rick Pluta is Senior Capitol Correspondent for the Michigan Public Radio Network. He has been covering Michigan’s Capitol, government, and politics since 1987. His journalism background includes stints with UPI, The Elizabeth (NJ) Daily Journal, The (Pontiac, MI) Oakland Press, and WJR. He is also a lifelong public radio listener.
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