LANSING – As we went to press on Dec. 4, there was no right-to-work law in Michigan. But by the time you read this, there could be.
Since the lame duck legislative session began Nov. 27, state Republican lawmakers were conferring among themselves, being lobbied by pro-union and anti-union groups and generally saying little publicly about their plans. But as for voting on a blanket right-to-work bill for all workers or a lesser measure that would only affect public workers like teachers, the Republican jury was still out.
On Nov.29, hundreds of people went to the state Capitol Building to urge legislators to reject right-to-work for Michigan. With little recourse for affecting the direction of RTW legislation, organized labor in Michigan is working on moving any such legislation past the end of this year’s lame duck session on Dec. 13, and into 2013, hoping for something better.
“Every working person in Michigan should be concerned about the contents of this ‘right to work’ bill and question how quickly it is moving,” Rick Meeth, a teacher from Bay City, told the Michigan State AFL-CIO. “Whether you are a union member or not, employees in ‘right to work’ states average $1,500 less in wages per year and are less likely to have access to benefits through their job.”
The Michigan AFL-CIO is organizing “Lame Duck Activist events” which will take place in Bay City, Saginaw, Detroit, Ann Arbor, Kalamazoo, Grand Rapids and Flint over the next month.
Michigan Laborers District Council Legislative Director Jonathan Byrd said in general, there’s a five-day waiting period between the introduction and adoption of legislation in Lansing. So, no news is good news.
“The strategy for us right now, is how do we keep this bottled up until we get into next year, when we will have five more Democrats in the state House,” said Byrd. “And that’s important, because I’ve talked to 20 Republican legislators over the past few days, and among them there is sympathy for the building trades against the free rider concept.”
Byrd said for the building trades, a right-to-work law would introduce a wildly unfair “benefits without representation,” scenario, where workers would not have to pay union dues, but still enjoy the benefits of costly training, and administration of health care and pension plans and contracts.
A right-to-work law is seen as the ultimate blow to unions in states where such laws have been adopted. They allow workers in a bargaining group to opt out of paying dues, while enjoying the benefits of being in a union. It’s unfair, undemocratic, and ultimately leads to the decline in union bargaining power. Numerous studies have shown that workers in right-to-work states, which are primarily in the South and West, have lower wages and benefits and higher poverty levels.
Organized labor in Michigan attempted to stop any right-to-work rumblings through Proposal 2, which would have enshrined various worker rights in the state constitution. But the ballot measure lost by a significant margin on Nov. 6, and many Republicans and their big business backers are claiming that there is now a mandate for them to adopt a right-to-work law.
State Rep. Mike Shirkey (R-Clarklake), a main proponent of a RTW law, said last week that the legislation has been written, but he would not push it “until I know that all the I’s are dotted and T’s are crossed” in terms of getting support from both the House and Senate and Gov. Snyder.
Exit polling from the election indicates that 70 percent of voters – including 55 percent of those who voted ‘no” on Proposal 2 – still support the right of workers to bargain collectively.
“Now is the time to put divisive politics aside,” said Michigan AFL-CIO President Karla Swift. “From creating high-quality jobs, to building infrastructure, to improving education and health care, Michigan has real problems to solve. Workers and their unions are an important part of those solutions. Unfortunately, some members of the legislature intend to push an agenda which would severely damage working families and detract from the priorities that we set for our state.”