After Michigan Democrats scored their first trifecta of controlling the House, Senate and governor’s office in decades this past election, the state is now set to become the first state in six decades to overturn its anti-worker “right-to-work” law.
Democrats in the Michigan House voted on Tuesday to approve a bill repealing right to work in the state, sending the bill to Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, who has pledged to sign the bill into law. The bill passed the Michigan Senate last week in a party line vote.
The bill’s passage is a major victory for labor unions, which have long denounced right-to-work laws as stifling workers, hamstringing unions and worsening working conditions. For decades, the tide has been in favor of right-to-work laws — the last time a state repealed a right-to-work law was Indiana, in 1965, only for it to be reinstated in 2012.
“It’s huge,” Michigan AFL-CIO President Ron Bieber told Michigan Radio. “It’s huge for the entire labor movement nationally to have a victory for working people and make progress for a change.”
Michigan unions say that the repeal will set the state up to be one of the best states for workers’ rights after over a decade of right to work. There are currently 26 other states with right-to-work laws.
For many years, Michigan had the highest rate of unionization in the U.S.; as the Economic Policy Institute (EPI) found in a recent report, in 2005, the state’s unionization rate was 1.7 times the national rate, while the median wage was 6 percent higher than the average median wage. Since Republicans passed right to work in 2012, according to Bureau of Labor statistics data, the state has lost 40,000, or 2.6 percent, of its union members.
Right-to-work laws work against unionization by exempting workers from paying dues for unions, while still drawing benefits from union membership. These laws are backed by corporations and conservative lobbyists because they work to weaken unions and their power to organize workers; a study by the National Bureau of Economic Research found that, among Michigan and four other states that implemented right-to-work laws between 2011 and 2017, unionization rates dropped by 4 percent on average.
Conservatives often argue that right-to-work laws are supposedly about worker freedom, while businesses will be attracted to right-to-work states, where they can conduct business cheaper. These are contradictory ideas, labor advocates have pointed out.
“We really have to think about, why exactly is that? It’s not because [businesses are] coming to Michigan thinking that workers are being treated better,” Atulya Dora-Laskey, an organizer behind the first-ever unionized Chipotle in Lansing, Michigan, told Michigan Advance. “It’s because they think that the workers here will be easier to exploit with right-to-work, because they don’t have the same amount of solidarity as they would otherwise.”
Or, as the bill’s lead sponsor, state Rep. Regina Weiss (D), said in a speech on the House floor earlier this month: “Right-to-work was never about freedom — it was simply about control.”
Right-to-work laws, dominating over half of the states in the U.S., have been blamed for the overall decline in unionization across the country. The rate of unionization hit a record low last year, according to data from the Bureau of Labor statistics, with only 10.1 percent of the workforce in a union. At the same time, however, the sheer number of workers belonging to a union increased by 273,000 people in 2022, giving hope to labor advocates that there is currently momentum behind the labor movement but that people are being shackled by anti-union and anti-worker laws.
The Michigan right-to-work repeal is another indication of the current energy behind the labor movement, advocates say.
“I think it’s a sign of the times,”Jennifer Sherer, senior state policy coordinator for EPI, told Michigan Advance. “It’s a sign of the growing interest in reviving unions, and an acknowledgement of their really important role that they play in leveling the playing field and rebalancing that power.”
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