In the last century Michigan led the nation toward wider acceptance of labor unions, higher wages and the concept of collective bargaining. Now, Michigan is leading the nation away from all that.
Passage of the state's right-to-work law in 2012 and the ongoing "top priority" effort by Republicans to repeal Michigan's prevailing wage act are giving renewed buoyancy to anti-worker groups like the National Right-to-Work Committee, who see passage of RTW laws in Indiana and Michigan as harbingers for other states. Now, 24 of the 50 states have right-to-work laws - meaning that workers in a bargaining group can enjoy the benefits of union representation, without paying union dues.
"We are close to the tipping point," said Greg Mourad, vice president of the National Right to Work Committee, to the Construction Labor Report. "We are seeing more openness to it from a lot of state legislators partly due to our success in Indiana and Michigan. A lot of people are saying if those two states can do it - with their strong union bases - there is no reason we can't do it here, too."
Yes, the National Right to Work Committee actually exists, and they promote the expansion of right-to-work laws. They've been around doing anti-union work for decades, and they're not the only ones. Deep-pocketed private donors like the Koch Brothers fund groups like the Heritage Foundation and the American Legislative Exchange Council, who in turn fund efforts to repeal worker-friendly laws like prevailing wage, and institute business-friendly laws like right-to-work and those that strip workers of safety, on-the-job rights and pension protections.
When Michigan's right-to-work bill was signed into law in 2012, AFL-CIO President Rich Trumka said Gov. Snyder "ignored working Michiganders," but "listened to Grover Norquist, Dick DeVos, the Koch brothers and the extremes of his party. His action will undoubtedly please the Koch Brothers and corporate CEOs, but it will diminish the voice of every working man and woman in Michigan."
The above tipping point reference for 2015 comes up because Republicans control 68 of the 100 legislative chambers among the U.S. states (Nebraska's is unicameral) according to Ballotpedia. In 23 states, the GOP hold the governor's seat and majorities in both legislative chambers. And they're wasting no time getting after unions and working people. Here's a sampling of what's going on:
- Wisconsin: Tearing a page from Gov. Snyder's playbook, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, who has presidential ambitions, last year said “I have no interest in pursuing right-to-work legislation in this state," and RTW is "not something that’s part of my agenda." Fast forward to last week, and RTW was on the fast track toward passage in the Republican-dominated Dairy State Legislature, and Walker's spokeswoman said he would sign it into law if it reaches his desk. Walker and the state's GOP lawmakers have already severely restricted the power of public-employee unions to bargain collectively.
Wisconsin's GOP lawmakers have also introduced legislation to repeal the state's prevailing wage law.
- Indiana: Along with Michigan, it adopted a right-to-work law in 2012, and now the Hoosier State Legislature - also dominated by Republicans - is debating the repeal of the statewide prevailing wage law. The House passed a repeal measure on Feb. 23, and the legislation is now in the Senate.
The repeal bill is getting some pushback from the contracting community. The Indianapolis Star reported that Phil Kenney, president of F.A. Wilhelm Construction in Indianapolis, argued that reducing wages would keep workers from building a career in construction, driving down the quality of work. "You're giving them a disincentive to enter the industry, and that's why I oppose the bill. And again, I'm a registered Republican, but I oppose this because it will drastically hurt our business and our competitive ability throughout the state," Kenney said.
- Illinois: It's another unlikely state for anti-union legislation, but Gov. Bruce Rauner is actively pushing not for a statewide right-to-work law, but for "right-to-work zones." He is proposing to let counties decide if they want to be right to work, calling them "employee empowerment zones" and fighting "forced unionism." With both houses of the Illinois Legislature controlled by Democrats, one GOP lawmaker said Reuner's plans "would be a heck of a hill to climb."
Gov. Rauner tried an end-around, and issued an executive order allowing workers who are not in a union but are represented at the bargaining table to opt out of paying "fair share fees" used to offset the cost of bargaining. It would have created a de facto RTW law for state employees, but the state's attorney general and comptroller have said they will not implement the order.
- The Nevada Senate on Feb. 16 adopted legislation that would kill the state's prevailing wage law. The bill now heads to the state's GOP-controlled Assembly for a vote, and then to Republican Gov. Brian Sandoval, who hasn't indicated whether he intends to sign it. Nevada is already a right-to-work state.
The news isn't all bad.
- Kentucky: The state Legislature in mid-February shot down both prevailing wage repeal and right-to-work legislation. According to We Party Patriots, each of the two bills got only three Republican votes of support in the 19-member committee.
- West Virginia: A bill to repeal the state's prevailing wage stalled last month, with at least 100 contracting companies contacting lawmakers asking them to keep prevailing wage in place. "Local contractors and a road contractor from out of state will compete, and we won't be on a level playing field,," said John Strickland, president of the Maynard C. Smith Construction Co. of Kanawha City, as reported by Hampshire.com. "So the local contractor will lose that contract."
- New Mexico: Democrats control the state Senate, so a right-to-work bill that was adopted by the state's House Business and Employment Committee last month likely won't see the light of day. Senate Majority Leader Michael Sanchez called the law “hurtful,” adding, “It’s anti-worker, anti-family – that’s what it is. I don’t believe it’s going to get through the Senate.”