Hundreds of union supporters filled the halls of the Michigan Capitol on Tuesday as Senate Democrats voted along party lines in support of repealing the decade-old “right-to-work” law in a state long considered a pillar of organized labor.
Democrats have listed the repeal as one of their top legislative goals this session. The law, enacted in 2012 when Republicans fully controlled Michigan government, prohibits public and private unions from requiring that nonunion employees pay union dues even if the union bargains on their behalf.
Senators approved the repeal on a 20-17 vote, sending it back to the House, which passed its own version last week but must approve the final language. Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer has said she’ll sign it. The Senate also followed the House’s actions last week in voting to restore the state’s prevailing wage law, which requires contractors hired for state projects to pay union-level wages.
“It’s a new day here in Lansing,” Senate Majority Leader Winnie Brinks said. “And today we are taking action to empower workers by restoring the rights that they always relied on.”
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Union supporters, many of whom had waited nearly nine hours for the Senate to vote, cheered loudly from the gallery and outside the Senate chamber as Democrats voted to approve the repeal. A repeal in Michigan would deliver a much needed victory in the region for unions after Wisconsin and Indiana passed their own “right-to-work” laws over the past decade.
A bill seeking to reimburse some union members the cost of their dues has also been cosponsored by 33 House Democrats, further signifying the direction of the party after they took full control of the state government this year.
Supporters and opponents of the “right-to-work” law clashed during a Tuesday morning Senate Labor committee meeting where the legislation was first considered. Union supporters said workers’ wages and rights have suffered over the past decade while business advocates said the law has made the state competitive once again.
“Being a right-to-work law state makes us more competitive nationally, and especially with our neighboring states who also have these laws,” said Wendy Block of the Michigan Chamber of Commerce.
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State Sen. Thomas Albert, the lone Republican on the committee, said during the meeting that the repeal would allow “forced union membership.”
Spending appropriations were attached to both bills, a move that Republicans say is to ensure they are “referendum-proof.” The Michigan Constitution states that bills with appropriations attached to them are not subject to a public referendum in which voters could reject the law.
Whitmer promised in her 2019 State of the State speech to “veto bills designed to cut out the public’s right of referendum.” Her office has said that while she didn’t ask for the appropriation to be added, “the governor is going to sign a bill that puts Michigan’s working families first.”
Opponents could still protect the policy by putting a constitutional amendment on the ballot, which would require close to 450,000 voter signatures. A ballot measure barring “right-to-work” laws was defeated by nearly 14 percentage points in 2012.
Michigan had the nation’s seventh-highest percentage of unionized workers when the “right-to-work” law was enacted in 2012, but that dropped to 11th in 2022. Over the past decade, union membership in Michigan has fallen by 2.6 percentage points as overall U.S. union membership has been falling steadily for decades, reaching an all-time low last year of 10.1%.
In total, 27 states have “right-to-work” laws in place. Republicans in Michigan, Indiana and Wisconsin all passed legislation over the past decade curbing union rights, sparking massive protests.
Thousands of union supporters descended on Michigan’s Capitol to protest in 2012 when the Republican controlled Statehouse pushed the “right-to-work” legislation through without hearings.
The year before, neighboring Wisconsin under Republican Gov. Scott Walker proposed all-but ending collective bargaining for most public workers. It sent off weeks of protests that grew to as large as 100,000 people and led Democratic state senators to leave the state in a failed attempt to stop the bill’s passage.
Four years later, after he had said he wouldn’t go after union rights of private sector workers, Walker signed a right-to-work law for Wisconsin.