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Michigan Legislature moves closer to Right-to-Work repeal

Michigan State Senate
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Michigan State Senate

The Michigan Senate voted to repeal the state’s Right-to-Work law Tuesday evening.

The 2012 policy bans jobs from making workers pay some union dues as a condition of employment.

During a Senate Labor Committee meeting earlier in the day, several union leaders and advocates decried the law as anti-worker.

Kathy Stevens is a member of the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union. She said working under the current law has divided staff within her grocery store.

“When we were all together as one strong group, our employers had to listen to us, and we had more respect on the job and the bargaining table,” Stevens told lawmakers.

Critics lambasted the repeal legislation as making Michigan less appealing to business investment. They argued it would amount to forcing workers to join a union even if they don’t want to.

David Worthams is director of employment policy for the Michigan Manufacturers Association.

“We have to compete. We have to attract talent, and making sure that people have the freedom to choose whether to join a union or not to join a union, not making it based on something that is part of the — a condition of employment will keep us very, very competitive in the future,” Worthams said.

A Right-to-Work repeal was among the original six priorities Democrats outlined earlier this year after assuming control of the state Legislature.

Voting along party lines Tuesday, the Senate passed a two-bill package to accomplish that goal.

“Today we are taking action to empower workers by restoring the rights that they always relied on, including the right to speak with one voice, for better pay, benefits, safer working conditions” Senate Majority Leader Winnie Brinks (D-Grand Rapids) said before the vote.

One bill deals with private unions while another deals with public ones.

House Bill 4004, concerning public unions, passed the House last week and is now set for the governor’s desk — though a 2017 U.S. Supreme Court decision makes the bill moot even if it does get her signature. That’s because the high court ruled against making public employees pay some union dues as part of their employment.

Its partner legislation, Senate Bill 6, still needs to make it past the House of Representatives before it can head to the governor.

Indiana is the only state to repeal Right-to-Work legislation within the last 60 years. Voters in one other state, Missouri, blocked a right to work law from taking effect after it had passed that state legislature and received the governor’s signature in 2018.

After the Michigan Senate vote, Minority Leader Aric Nesbitt (R-Porter Twp) accused Democrats of not being serious about attracting economic investment.

“This is about competing and winning in the 21st century. This is why more states are going to become Right-to-Work states and continue to be. There’s a reason why this is the first state in 60 years that’s working to repeal Right to Work,” Nesbitt said.

Aside from Right to Work, the Michigan Senate voted on another labor bill Tuesday that was a high priority for legislative Democrats. That one would require state construction contracts to pay union-level wages.

Earlier in the day, the Labor Committee heard testimony on both House and Senate versions of the legislation. But only the Senate version made it out of that chamber Tuesday.

Supporters argued paying prevailing wages helps ensure workers do a quality job with projects.

Sen. Veronica Klinefelt (D-Eastpointe) said it’s a matter of paying workers what they’re worth.

“In my opinion, it is unacceptable for us as a state to use taxpayer dollars in a way that undermines workers’ wages,” Klinefelt said.

Governor Gretchen Whitmer has signaled she plans to sign the labor bills when they get to her desk.

That’s despite all three pieces of legislation including spending measures that would make them immune to repeal through a voter referendum — a legislative tactic that Whitmer had previously criticized, even issuing an executive directive against it during her first term.

Legislative Democrats said it was their idea to put the spending into the bills, not the governor’s.

They defended the move, point out they’re simply doing the same thing Republicans did when they passed Right to Work originally.

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Colin Jackson is the Capitol reporter for the Michigan Public Radio Network.
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