LANSING, MICHIGAN — In Lansing, Michigan, labor supporters held a major rally Tuesday at the state capitol to protest the passage of Republican-sponsored right-to-work legislation limiting the influence of organized labor, a key constituency of the Democratic Party. The legislation, in the state that was once the stronghold of the labor movement, could change the balance of power between workers and management in the entire country.
Michigan union workers came by the thousands to the state capitol building to protest legislation to ban unions from requiring workers to pay labor dues.
What Does the Term "Right to Work" Mean?
It is a term lawmakers and business owners use. Right to work laws make it illegal to take away jobs from employees who refuse to join a labor union. It outlaws so-called "closed shops," which require workers to join a union or pay a fee similar to union dues.
Why Do Supporters Back Right to Work Laws?
Those who favor right to work laws say they are not anti-union because they say the laws do not take away a worker's right to join a union, start one, or even go on strike. They say such laws defend an employee's freedom of choice. Supporters also say states with right to work laws attract more new businesses and jobs. But some economists dispute that.
Why So Some People Oppose Right to Work Laws?
Opponents argue that such laws strengthen management at the expense of unions who fight for better working conditions and fair wages. Opponents to right to work laws say such regulations are aimed at weakening unions and could lead to arbitrary pay cuts, firings, and fewer benefits. They also say such laws allow workers to enjoy the same benefits as unionized workers without having to pay union dues.
The two bills at the center of the debate were approved by the state House of Representatives Tuesday, following recent passage by the Senate. The measures deal with public sector workers and the private sector. Republican Governor Rick Snyder says he intends to sign these bills into law.
The laws would likely reduce the membership and influence of organized labor in the state that gave rise to modern industrial unions. Michigan is the center of the U.S. automotive industry and unions like the United Auto Workers, which was founded in Detroit in 1935, are considered the heart of the nation's labor movement.
Union members like construction worker Fred Keith see these measures as an attempt to cut worker wages and protections.
“All this is going to do is be a downward spiral for the pay rates in the area, which are going also to be a downward spiral for the conditions, which is going to affect everybody," he said.
Michigan union workers backed President Barack Obama overwhelmingly in his re-election bid and the president spoke out against right-to-work measures when he visited a Detroit area auto plant.
“You know, these so-called right-to-work laws, they do not have to do with economics, they have everything to do with politics. What they are really talking about is giving you the right to work for less money," he said.
The conservative supporters of the bills, including a group financed by billionaires Charles and David Koch, opposed the president in the national election and backed similar divisive legislative battles in the bordering states of Wisconsin, Ohio and Indiana. Michigan would be the 24th state in the country to have right-to-work laws.
The labor policy director of the conservative Mackinac Center for Public Policy, Vincent Vernuccio, says attracting business to Michigan, not politics, is driving this initiative.
“The lawmakers in Michigan said we have a state [Wisconsin], saw that we have a state, right next to us on the border that is becoming more attractive for business, more attractive for workers and for job creators, and we have to do something about it in response," he said.
Representative Tim Greimel, the incoming leader of the Michigan House Democrats, has criticized the governor for supporting corporate interests over the public good.
“He wants to turn Michigan into the same low wage environment that we see in China, so that big corporations and fat cat CEOs do not have to go to the inconvenience of shipping products back and forth to China. They can do it right here in the state of Michigan," he said.
But he says Democrats do not have the votes to stop the bills from becoming law. Republicans have a strong majority in the state legislature. If enacted, legal challenges will likely follow and the issue promises to play a prominent role in future elections.