Michigan strikes right-to-work law detested by unions

Republicans, however, said the move would backfire by discouraging employers from locating or expanding in the state.

“Dramatically transforming our policies to harm workers and job providers will hang a ‘Closed for Business’ sign at our state’s borders and take Michigan off the list for future projects,” House Republican Leader Matt Hall said in a statement earlier this week during the vote on final passage.

The anti-union law’s repeal is a particularly significant symbolic victory given the special place Michigan holds in the organized labor movement.

“For us, being the home of labor and getting attacked 10 years ago was a gut punch to workers across Michigan,” state Sen. Darrin Camilleri, the sponsor of MI SB34 (23R), told POLITICO. “We are a state so steeped in union activism and union history that we knew this was a policy that our constituents wanted for the last 10 years as well.”

Even with the move, more than half the states in the country have right-to-work laws on the books. The Michigan Legislature’s repeal is the first since Indiana did so in 1965, before reverting in 2012. (Missouri voters in 2018 blocked a right-to-work law passed by Republican lawmakers.)

Proponents of such laws say they allow workers to freely choose whether to support union causes and make states attractive to businesses. It also saps membership and financial power from labor unions — a key part of the Democratic coalition — another reason right-to-work appeals to Republican lawmakers and conservatives.

Michigan’s law was highly contentious when Republicans pushed it through during the lame-duck session following the 2012 election, with unions rallying thousands of people to the statehouse in protest of the legislation. The state’s then-governor, Republican Rick Snyder, at the time pointed to voters’ overwhelming rejection of a state constitutional amendment that would have enshrined collective bargaining rights as validation of the GOP’s actions.

“It was a quite a heavy victory,” for opponents of the constitutional amendment, said Patrick Wright, the vice president for legal affairs at the conservative Mackinac Center for Public Policy. “It became a lot easier for people to think about it and take those votes.”

Michigan’s repeal was years in the making and is just one of several high-profile progressive issues statehouse Democrats have taken on in the months after narrowly gaining unified control of the legislature for the first time since the 1980s.

The effort was helped by several factors unique to the state, though by the same token could make it hard for union backers to replicate Michigan’s example elsewhere.

For one, Michigan’s law was far less entrenched than others — some of which date back to the 1940s or have been written into state constitutions — and the memories of the 2012 defeat remain relatively fresh in Democrats’ minds.

“I just remember being so incredibly distraught, outraged, and feeling helpless about not being able to do anything about it and the way in which it was done,” said state Rep. Regina Weiss, a former teacher who sponsored the repeal legislation. “That was the first time I was really starting to pay attention to what was happening in state politics in Michigan.”

Weiss is among the more than 40 percent of state House Democrats — 24 out of 56 — who have been members of a union, according to data from the Michigan AFL-CIO.

Repeal backers also credited the successful 2018 ballot initiative to create an independent redistricting commission as integral to making it possible for Democrats to gain control of the Legislature, as opposed to a state like neighboring Wisconsin, where district lines were drawn to favor Republicans.

“That’s the difference between having a legislative majority that has your back and wants to expand workers’ rights, as opposed to being in the minority and having a legislature that was to suppress workers’ rights,” Ron Bieber, the head of the Michigan AFL-CIO, said in an interview.

Michigan is also the home of several big-name Republican donors, such as financier Ron Weiser and the DeVos family, who have bankrolled right-to-work and other conservative causes and galvanized opponents.

“When you explain that these initiatives that are backed by Betsy DeVos, or whomever, folks here know that’s probably not a good thing for most working people because that’s not who they’re here for,” Weiss said.

A spokesperson for the former secretary of Education did not return a request for comment.

Along with the right-to-work repeal, which applies to private-sector workers, Michigan lawmakers passed legislation MI HB4004 (23R) that would apply to public-sector jobs in the event the U.S. Supreme Court revisited its 2018 Janus decision, which held that requiring non-union public employees to pay agency fees to unions was unconstitutional.

Democrats also passed a measure reinstating prevailing wage requirements for publicly funded construction projects MI HB4007 (23R) previously repealed by the GOP.

“Michigan in 2023 is not the same as Michigan in 2012,” Bieber said.

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