LANSING, Mich. (AP/WOOD) — Michigan’s Democratic-led House approved legislation Wednesday that would repeal the state’s “right-to-work” law that was passed more than a decade ago when Republicans controlled the Statehouse.
Repealing the law, which prohibits public and private unions from requiring that nonunion employees pay union dues even if the union bargains on their behalf, has been a top priority for Democrats since they took full control of the state government this year.
“This bill is not about making history. It is about restoring the rights of workers from whose work we’ve all benefited,” Rep. Jim Haadsma, a Battle Creek Democrat, said on the House floor prior to the vote.
Supporters of the repeal, who poured into the gallery above the House chambers, cheered loudly as the legislation passed along party lines late Wednesday. Legislation restoring the state’s prevailing wage law, which requires contractors hired for state projects to pay union-level wages, was also approved by the House.
Both bills will need to pass the state Senate before being sent to Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer for final approval.
A $1 million appropriation was attached to both bills prior to the House vote that Republican House Leader Matt Hall said would make them “referendum-proof.” Michigan law says the “power of referendums” does not extend to bills with appropriations attached.
Whitmer previously wrote in a government accountability plan that if “a non-appropriations bill has a dollar amount added to circumvent the people’s right to a referendum,” she would veto it.
The House Labor Committee advanced the repeal, in addition to the legislation that would restore the state’s prevailing wage law, early Wednesday as supporters and opponents of the bills packed the main committee room and three overflow areas. The committee allowed just over an hour of testimony, predominately from supporters of the repeal, before voting to advance the bills.
“We don’t want the government telling two private parties what they can agree to in negotiations,” said Jonathan Byrd, president of the South Central Michigan AFL-CIO. “That is what right-to-work does.”
Whitmer commended the committee for putting “Michigan workers first,” saying in a statement that “working people should always have basic freedoms in the workplace without interference from the government.”
House Republicans argued in the committee that the public showed its support of right-to-work when voters rejected a 2012 constitutional amendment that aimed to protect the right to organize and bargain collectively. They also complained that the bills were being rushed through and that more debate was needed.
Haadsma, who chairs the House Labor Committee, said the committee “had to accomplish this today so we can accomplish this by spring break,” referring to the Legislature’s two-week break that begins March 23.
Ryan Bennett, business manager for UA Local 174 West Michigan Plumbers and Fitters, said overturning the law would be a win for the Michigan workforce.
“If you look at union density as it relates to states in ‘right-to-work’ areas, the higher the union density, the easier the pathway to the middle class. Passing ‘right-to-work’ nearly a decade ago was a big slap in the face to Michigan’s workforce,” Bennett said.
Prior to Wednesday’s vote, some Republican lawmakers said getting rid of the law would be a step in the wrong direction.
“When we repeal it we’re going to be going back to where we were before which was declining population, fewer jobs, fewer economic opportunities for our state, that’s where we’re going to be heading,” House Minority Leader Matt Hall, R-Kalamazoo, said.
Andy Johnston, senior vice president of advocacy for the Grand Rapids Chamber, said the law gave workers choice whether or not they want union membership, and repealing it would make Michigan less competitive economically.
“When we talk to our economic development colleagues they tell us that sight selectors have ‘right-to-work’ on their list for certain projects,” Johnston said. “If you’re not a ‘right-to-work’ state, you’re going to be overlooked for certain projects.”
Bennett believes more union representation is part of the solution, rather than the problem.
“We’ve seen a wage stagnation that we haven’t seen in the past with rising costs and wages just not keeping up with inflation. So the best way to compensate for that is a collectively bargained agreement and unified workforce,” Bennett said.
Within the repeal legislation, $1 million dollars will be appropriated to educate workers and employers about the changes.
When the Legislature passed the right-to-work legislation in 2012, thousands of union supporters descended on the Capitol to protest. The law dealt a devastating blow to organized labor in a state that had played an important role in the growth of the U.S. labor movement, though unions have lost significant power in the region over the past decade.
The year before, neighboring Wisconsin under Republican Gov. Scott Walker proposed all-but ending collective bargaining for most public workers. It sent off weeks of protests that grew to as large as 100,000 people and led Democratic state senators to leave the state in a failed attempt to stop the bill’s passage.
Four years later, after he had said he wouldn’t go after union rights of private sector workers, Walker signed a right-to-work law for Wisconsin.
Associated Press writer Scott Bauer in Madison, Wisconsin, contributed to this report.