LANSING — Michigan’s decade-old “right-to-work” laws are in peril now that Democratic legislators are acting to rescind them — as promised — two months after taking power in Lansing.
The move began Wednesday in the House. It voted 56-53 on party lines to again require workers to pay dues or fees to unions representing them and 56-53 to reinstate a law mandating “prevailing” wages on construction projects funded at least partly with state dollars. The Senate could send the pro-union legislation to Gov. Gretchen Whitmer as soon as next week.
The step, which drew applause from union supporters in the House gallery, is alarming business groups and Republicans who say the bills send the wrong message in terms of economic development.
“If you’re not a right-to-work state, companies have told me they will not even consider us for opportunities. Now it’s not all of them. But it’s some of them,” said House Minority Leader Matt Hall, a Republican from Kalamazoo County’s Richland Township. “We should be a state that’s trying to attract every high-paying job that we can to make our state more competitive. We shouldn’t be taking the non-union ones off the table.”
A coalition of 17 business and conservative organizations sent a letter urging House members to keep Michigan as one of 28 “right-to-work” states. They said it keeps the state competitive and lets people choose how to spend their wages.
At a House Labor Committee hearing Wednesday morning, union officials and Democrats said the laws are anti-worker, allow “freeloading” and have reduced union membership in what is considered the birthplace of the modern American organized labor movement.
They said workers in states “with full collective bargaining rights” make on average $1,500 more than those in “right-to-work” states and unionized workplaces have more strife when some employees can opt out of fees but benefit from bargained-for pay and benefits.
“Michigan for years led the nation in having some of the best middle-class jobs due to strong collective bargaining protections. It is long past time that we get back to our roots,” said Rep. Regina Weiss, an Oak Park Democrat and sponsor of the repeal bills.
Jonas Peterson, CEO of Southwest Michigan First, a regional community and economic development organization, said it also operates a large network of site-selection professionals.
“Here’s what those site selectors tell us: Right-to-work makes states more competitive. They also tell us that for some job-creation projects, states that do not have right-to-work are simply not considered. We’re not even in the game,” he told the panel.
But Democratic Rep. Joey Andrews of St. Joseph said site selectors also consider other factors such as roads, broadband internet and housing — “all the things that we in Michigan are currently lacking in” — aside from simply whether a state is “right-to-work.” Unionized businesses like Ford Motor Co. recently decided to locate an electric vehicle battery plant here, he said.
“If anything, getting rid of right-to-work weeds out the type of employers that we would rather not have in favor of employers who put their workers and working conditions first,” Andrews said.
Peterson conceded that other factors including infrastructure and workforce quality are important but said a state’s “right-to-work” status is a “big factor.”
The legislation would effectively apply only to the private sector.
In 2018, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that government workers cannot be forced to contribute to unions, so Democrats’ cancellation of Michigan’s law that applies to public employees would take effect only if the high court reverses course in the future.
The Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a Midland-based group that supports the “right-to-work” laws, analyzed membership figures of 15 major unions. It estimates there were 143,000, or 26.5 percent, fewer active members in 2022 than in 2012.
Jessica Smith, a China Township resident and meat department manager for Kroger Co., told the panel that the laws made her feel like the state thought she is less important than her employer’s bottom line.
“When you’re in a workplace and you have most of the people in the union and then there’s a few people who decide — ‘I don’t have to pay, you guys are paying for it. I can get it for free’ — it causes a divide,” she said. “It causes workplace anger, all kinds of negative feelings that don’t need to be there. We need to stick together so we can get what’s best for everyone.”
The prevailing wage law, which Republican legislators repealed in 2018, required paying the local wage and benefit rate, usually union scale, on new construction or improvement of schools and projects funded in whole or in part with state money.
At the time, the rescission was not expected to save much on road projects because most are at least partially funded with federal dollars and subject to a U.S. prevailing wage law.
In 2021, Whitmer announced that the state government would pay prevailing wages on its projects because the cancellation of the 1965 law did not preclude the Michigan Department of Technology, Management & Budget from implementing a prevailing wage policy.
Price Dobernick, president of the Michigan Pipes Trades Association, which includes 11 local unions, said the prevailing wage law worked.
“Without the stable, regulated environment that prevailing wage provides, the market is left in a race to the bottom,” he said, “where hiring decisions are based on profits” and there is little regard for workers and their safety.
But Jimmy Greene, president of the nonunion Associated Builders and Contractors of Michigan, said reviving mandatory higher wages would “take away a fundamental right of local communities (to) govern tax dollars.”
Major business organizations, including the Michigan Chamber of Commerce and Michigan Manufacturers Association, complained that they were not allowed to testify against the “right-to-work” repeal bills in the committee hearing that lasted about 100 minutes. The chair, Democratic Rep. Jim Haadsma of Battle Creek, said a hearing was held and he fairly let some opponents speak and Republicans ask questions.
In 2012, GOP lawmakers pushed the “right-to-work” legislation to Gov. Rick Snyder in a lame-duck session without holding a committee meeting, as thousands of union members protested at the Capitol.
The latest bills would include $2 million for the state Department of Labor and Economic Opportunity to, among other things, inform employers, employees and unions about their rights and responsibilities under the new laws. The spending would prevent opponents from attempting to repeal the laws in a referendum, a maneuver Whitmer — a former legislator — criticized when Republicans used it.
From Crain’s Detroit Business.