The Republican majority Michigan Legislature passed controversial right-to-work legislation on Dec. 11, which means that people who work in a place covered by union collective bargaining will not have to be union members or pay union dues.
Gov. Rick Snyder (R-Mich.) has said that he will sign the legislation into law, perhaps by Dec. 12.
Thousand of people protested the legislation, evoking the turmoil in Wisconsin this summer when Gov. Scott Walker (R-Wis.) signed legislation restricting collective bargaining rights for workers. Protesters massed at the Wisconsin state Capitol and occupied the Capitol building. An attempt to recall Walker failed at the ballot box.
Public union expert Lee Adler is a researcher at the School of Industrial and Labor Relations (ILR) at Cornell University. According to Adler, Michigan’s situation shows that the 2012 election has not rolled back the changes that came with the 2010 election. Michigan unions cannot hope to overturn the right to work bill through legislative means.
Michigan voters rejected Proposal 2, which would have amended the state constitution to protect collective bargaining rights, and they rejected two other union-backed measures: one about home care workers and one about state emergency manager powers to suspend union agreements.
“The Republican Party still has the ability in a number of key states, including those above the Mason-Dixon line, to damage trade unions’ abilities to revitalize in the public and private sectors,” wrote Adler in an email.
“Unions’ political responses, by necessity, will need to be creative, expansive, and carefully coordinated with other parts of U.S. society with whom they have similar interests,” according to Adler.
“Workers, union or nonunion, make an average of $1,500 less per year in Right to Work states.”
—Karla Swift, president, Michigan State AFL-CIO
Supporters describe right to work as freedom of choice, while opponents such as Adler describe it as a power grab meant to defund the unions and the Democratic Party.
“We have hardworking people in Michigan, and they should have the right to choose,” said Snyder in a Dec. 11 Fox News interview. He described the new law as one that gives workers greater freedom. “I don’t think it’s appropriate to say just to keep your job you have to join a union. … So I view this as pro-worker legislation.”
According to a statement from Snyder on his official website, right-to-work states have higher per capita income and attract migration from other states. Snyder cited a Wall Street Journal article that said right-to-work states have higher rates of per capita income growth, according to the Cato Journal and the conservative think tank Taxpayers Protection Alliance.
However, Michigan State AFL-CIO President Karla Swift has a differing view. According to Swift, “Workers, union or nonunion, make an average of $1,500 less per year in right to work states. They are also less likely to have pension or health care benefits.” Right-to-work states tend to be poorer than other states, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
“Right to work would set all Michigan workers back in terms of wages, benefits, and safety on the job. Instead of attacking the middle class, our lawmakers should work to build it back up,” said Mike Polkki, a miner from Ishpeming who protested at the Capitol on Dec. 4. He was quoted in a news release from the United Auto Workers union.
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