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Road Funding Discussions Dredge Up 'Right To Work'

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'Right to work' part of discussions on roads package

Negotiations between Republicans and Democrats at the state Capitol over road funding may have resurrected the controversy over Michigan's right-to-work law.

There's a lot of deal-making happening in Lansing as the Legislature enters the final days before its summer recess. The two biggest issues are finishing the state budget, and coming up with more than $1.2) billion new dollars a year for roads - Governor Rick Snyder's top priority before lawmakers leave Lansing.

But Snyder and GOP leaders won't win a roads deal without support from Democrats. They simply don't have enough support for new taxes or fees from their own ranks.

But Democrats say their support won't come without some big concessions. At the top of their list is new tax breaks for lower-income families who would see a bigger share of their earnings go to higher fuel or sales taxes.  

Republicans are in the majority in the House and Senate. But they don't have the votes among their own ranks to approve new taxes or fees for roads. And Democrats are setting some big conditions for their support. One of them is re-visiting the right-to-work controversy by allowing unions to charge a bargaining fee to members who don't pay dues.

But that's just the beginning. Other demands include promises not to tinker with the prevailing wage or electoral college in a "lame duck" session after the November elections have passed.

And some unions have just put on the table re-visiting the state's right-to-work law, rammed through the Legislature in a rancorous "lame duck" session two years ago.

It's a fair demand, says state House Democratic Leader Tim Greimel, because the right-to-work law was pushed through so quickly, after the elections and without public hearings "...because they know that ultimately, it undermines labor organizations, and undermines their ability to negotiate higher wages and benefits for workers."

He says the idea is to allow union locals to charge a "bargaining fee" to members who don't pay dues or an "agency fee" under the right-to-work law.

"If somebody is benefitting from a collective bargaining agreement, they'd have to pay not the full amount of union dues, they wouldn't have to do that, but they would have pay some lesser amount to cover the administrative cost that the union has in negotiating that collective bargaining agreement."

That's a non-starter, says the sponsor of the right-to-work law.

"Not only do I think it's a bad idea, it's a hell of a bad idea, and I'd probably oppose that with just about everything that I've got," says Representative Mike Shirkey (R-Clarklake).  

"So if I understand this correctly, people are trying to use the need to address the under-funding of our roads and infrastructure, and use this an opportunity to still, yet expand forced unionization."  

Shirkey says a condition like that would cause even more Republican support for roads revenue to drop off.

Snyder and Republican leaders in the Legislature have tried to keep other issues out of the discussions on roads. Democrats say they've been shut out of negotiations on so many issues for so long, that's not an option they're willing to consider.

Rick Pluta is the managing editor for the Michigan Public Radio Network.