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Michigan overturns anti-union ‘right to work’ law

Michigan is the first state in almost 60 years to overturn right to work legislation.

(CN) — Michigan officially repealed a decade old anti-union "right to work" law on Friday afternoon in a victory for the state's organized labor.

The law, passed in 2012 when Republicans controlled both chambers of the state Legislature, allowed individuals in unionized workplaces to opt out of paying union dues. It was a major financial and political setback for Michigan's unions, creating so-called free-riders who could enjoy some union benefits without paying for their costs. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Michigan union membership declined from over 16% of the workforce in 2012, to 14% in 2022. With the law repealed, unions can now require all workers in a union shop to pay the dues and fees necessary to maintain strike funds and collective bargaining representation.

Democratic Governor Gretchen Whitmer signed the trio of state House and Senate bills overturning the right to work law on Friday, following their narrow passage in both chambers earlier this week. One of the bills she signed also restores the state's prevailing wage law, which was axed by the state's GOP-led government in 2018. The new prevailing wage law requires contractors to pay their workers union-equivalent wages for all state projects.

“Today, we are coming together to restore workers’ rights, protect Michiganders on the job, and grow Michigan’s middle class,” Whitmer said in a prepared statement on Friday. “Michigan workers are the most talented and hard-working in the world and deserve to be treated with dignity and respect."

Michigan Democrats said overturning the law was one of their primary goals in January, when they took control of both state chambers and the governor's office for the first time since 1983. The repeal also enjoyed on-the-ground support from unions active in the state, including the Service Employees International Union, the United Auto Workers and the United Food and Commercial Workers.

“Working Michiganders... are reclaiming our seat at the table so we can speak with a united voice about the better future we all want for our children," said SEIU Michigan Vice President Brandice Mullen in her own prepared statement. "Stronger unions give us a fair shot at holding corporations accountable so we can create more jobs with the wages, healthcare coverage, and retirement security that sustain families." 

Michigan is now the first state in almost 60 years to repeal a right to work law. The last time was when Indiana overturned its own similar law in 1965, following its adoption in 1957. Indiana Republicans restored the anti-union legislation in 2012, making it one of the 26 states, mostly in the southeast and Midwest, that still maintain such policies.

Right to work laws were first introduced to states via the Labor Management Relations Act of 1947, better known as the Taft-Hartley Act. According to a 2022 study from the non-partisan think tank National Bureau of Economic Research, right to work laws were associated with a 7.5% wage reduction on average compared to workers in non-right to work states. The study also found that unionization raised workers' wages by approximately 40% overall.

While news of the repeal thrilled labor unions and progressives, it was met with condemnation from state Republicans and several of the state's business groups, as well as the Michigan Chamber of Commerce. The chamber bemoaned Whitmer's signature on Friday, saying the new labor bills would negatively impact the "state’s economic competitiveness and ability to attract and retain jobs."

“This is exactly the type of shortsighted, politically-charged policy that imposes burdensome, unnecessary hurdles to generating more and better jobs and the economic growth that benefits all Michiganders," Chamber President and CEO Jim Holcomb said in a statement opposing the bills earlier this month.

GOP state Representative Matt Hall, the Michigan House minority leader, also criticized the repeal. "Without right-to-work, businesses will find more competitive states for their manufacturing plants and research and development facilities, and workers and careers will drift away," Hall said in a prepared statement. "To add economic insult to injury, the Democrats’ prevailing wage law will expose small businesses in our communities to frivolous legal harassment from competitors and activists."

But the Michigan Federation of Labor rebutted Hall and Holcomb's criticisms, saying the repeal of right to work and reinstatement of prevailing wage law represented Michigan workers reclaiming power from employers after decades of disenfranchisement.

“After decades of anti-worker attacks, Michigan has restored the balance of power for working people by passing laws to protect their freedom to bargain for the good wages, good benefits, and safe workplaces they deserve,” Michigan AFL-CIO President Ron Bieber said in his own statement.

Categories:Business, Employment, Government, Politics

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