Last Monday, Michigan was a state with long history of union protections and nobody was talking about this changing any time soon. Yesterday (Dec. 11th, 2012), Michigan became a “right to work” state and unions were dealt a massive blow. In less than a week, more than 70 years of Michigan labor law was changed in what can only be described as a blitz attack by Republican legislators.
Rather than go through the normal legislative process, the Michigan GOP opted to pass “right to work” legislation quickly, and without any hearings or debate. In a period of less than 8 hours on December 6th, both the Michigan state Senate and House met and passed versions of a state “right to work” law by a party-line vote; as Democrats currently lack the numbers to resist anything that is proposed by the Michigan state GOP, these versions of the law easily passed.
Yesterday, Governor Rick Snyder signed the Michigan “right to work” bill into law. From start to finish, the entire legislative process for this bill, from the first public discussion over the bill to its implementation into the law, took only six days.
The crafters of this bill have designed it to be very difficult to repeal and immune to a citizen’s referendum. By inserting an appropriations component into the bill, the Michigan GOP made the right to work law impossible to remove with a citizen’s repeal (like the financial emergency manager law was).
“Right to Work” or “Union”?
Michigan has been transformed from a union state to a “right to work” state—many people may not understand the impact of this, so here is a quick explanation:
In a union state, all workers who benefit from union collective bargaining activities are required to pay union dues, regardless of whether or not they want to join the union. Because unions bargain on behalf of all workers in a workplace, thus improving compensation, union shop laws ensure that unions are supported by all workers who benefit from union negotiations. These laws prevent the creation of a “free-rider” problem, where workers refuse to pay union dues and still get the benefits of union activities.
In a “right to work” state, there is no requirement that the workers who benefit from union activities pay union dues. Under “right to work” laws, it is up to individual initiative for workers to pay into unions and support union activities. As there is no requirement for the beneficiaries of union activities to pay union dues under “right to work” laws, the free-rider problem becomes an issue for unions and unions often lose power.
When compared, “right to work” states and union states have distinct differences in safety standards, compensation, and worker protections. Unions in “right to work” states find getting dues from all of their beneficiaries virtually impossible and gradually begin to lose power, if not disappear—this decrease in the power of labor leads to decreased benefits for workers:
- Compensation: Workers in “right to work” states receive an average of $1,500 per year less in wages than compared to workers in union states.
- Worker Safety: There are 52.9% more job related deaths (when adjusted for worker population) in union states than in union states.
- Economic Impacts: Adopting “right to work” legislation causes no increase in available jobs for a state when compared to union states.
The passage of “right to work” legislation in Michigan has been met with extremely intense negative reactions from worker’s rights groups and Democrats within the state. During the passage of the law through the state legislature the Democratic state lawmakers walked out (they lacked enough votes to obstruct its passage in any way) and large protests formed at the Michigan statehouse.
In the coming days, Michigan unions plan large protests and hope to make the public aware of this situation. The fast and irregular manner of the passage of this law, combined with the fact that it was passed immediately after the election lead many to see it as a fly-by night attack on union rights in the state. By giving no time for debate and passing this bill over the objections of the minority, the Michigan GOP has given many the feeling that they are
Governor Snyder has made a stark policy reversal in the area of “right to work” legislation. In his past comments, Snyder has called “right to work” legislation “divisive” and not something that he would support in Michigan. Obviously, his opinions have changed (or simply his real opinions have been revealed), and Snyder had no problem signing the Michigan “right to work” bill into law.
The passage of Michigan’s “right to work” law was pushed primarily by outside interests, including the Koch Brothers and their PAC “Americans for Prosperity.” To support the bill, Americans for Prosperity lobbied GOP legislators and even organized “grassroots protests” in support of the bill. In order to entice people to protest in favor of the right to work bill AFP bussed in “volunteers”, gave them pre-printed signs, and paid them with $25 prepaid gas cards (apparently real volunteers have been in short supply on this issue).
There is little that can be done to repeal this law until the Democrats retake the state legislature and executive branch, but protest appears to be only beginning. If the Wisconsin and Ohio labor protests during the last few years are any barometer, it appears likely that Michigan will be the staging ground for a massive political fight.
The passage of the Michigan “right to work” laws is a terrible blow to unions and is a two-pronged attack against the middle class and Democrats. “Right to work” laws are a boon to Republicans because they fulfill two of the core functions of the current Republican Party: Consolidating power through attacking Democratic institutions and facilitating corporate exploitation of workers.
Modern Republicans hate unions—and will go to great lengths to disrupt them—because unions prevent corporations (the top Republican donors) from exploiting workers and are the main source of Democratic funding. By attacking them, Republicans are able to simultaneously cater to their donors’ interests and hurt their political opponents.
Unfortunately for the people of Michigan, the wealthy interests who believe that they will profit from a race to the bottom for labor compensation appear to have taken aim at the Midwest. By “donating” money (Read: bribing) to politicians, the wealthy and corporate interests hope to crush labor unions and become the only major economic powers in American politics. Once labor unions are crushed, there will be no organized aggregation of resources to combat the big money donors of the right (corporations and wealthy conservatives). The right wing hopes to work state by state and gradually destroy unions’ ability to form.
The recent actions of the Michigan GOP are nothing less than an betrayal of their oaths of office—they are using their power to cater to the interests of the wealthy few and have intentionally thumbed their noses at the Michigan public (what else can we call doing this initiative weeks after the election and just before they lose total control over the state legislature); not once during their campaigns did Michigan GOP members express their intent to make the state a “right to work (or, as Obama called it “a right to work for less” state), and they waited until after the time of accountability to begin this legislative attack on unions.
The Michigan GOP is afraid of debating this bill openly and had to pass it with a legislative blitz attack. Hopefully, the people of Michigan remember this law when voting and will make better choices in future elections—choices which allow Michigan to return to a strong union state.