Workers flock to see Right to Work reversal, prevailing wage restoration pass Michigan Senate

By: - March 15, 2023 7:54 am

Union members and activists watch Senate committee testimony from the Binsfeld Office Building lobby, March 14, 2023 | Laina G. Stebbins

A committee room and both lobbies of the Michigan Senate’s office building were jammed to the brim early Tuesday morning, as more than a hundred workers — many sporting union jackets — watched a Democratic-led Senate panel debate and then adopt several landmark pro-union bills.

Hours later, many of them packed the chamber gallery while the full Senate adopted three of the key measures to reverse the controversial 2012 Right to Work laws and to reverse the 2018 prevailing wage repeal. That follows action in the lower chamber last week.

This has been another top priority for the Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and the new Democratic-controlled Legislature, despite considerable lobbying and ads from business-aligned interests.

“We fought hard … and now the politics are in our favor, so we’re going to capitalize on that,” said Matt Ley, a district business agent for UA Local 669 Road Sprinkler Fitters, AFL-CIO.

“We’re excited about the vote today. It starts a new day, as long as we can maintain control of the House, Senate and executive branch,” Ley said, while testimony from the Senate Labor Committee streamed nearby.

House Bill 4004 and Senate Bills 34 and 6 passed along party lines in the Senate, 20-17, amid hours of floor debate that stretched into the evening. The House bill will now head to Whitmer’s desk for her likely signature. Senate Bills 34 and 6 still require final passage by the state House before going to the governor, which is expected next week.


“The failed experiment of gutting Michigan workers’ rights is soon to be over,” Senate Majority Leader Winnie Brinks (D-Grand Rapids) said Tuesday amid votes and floor speeches on the three bills.

RTW laws, signed by GOP former Gov. Rick Snyder more than a decade ago to curtail the power of unions, were highly controversial from their onset. Their quick 2012 passage in the state Legislature with little notice or hearings drew a pro-union protest of roughly 12,000 people to the state Capitol. 

“I will never forget the feeling I had, sitting in the other chamber as a representative-elect, watching as thousands of workers’ voices went ignored — as the building shook, and an unprecedented workers’ oppression bill passed with no hearing, a quick vote and a swing of the gavel,” Brinks said on Tuesday.

RTW allows workers to get all union benefits without having to pay dues. Labor advocates who have opposed the laws from their inception say that they have taken resources away from unions, impairing their ability to bargain effectively for their members. 

Prevailing wage for contracted workers on state projects was also repealed in 2018. Advocates say reinstating this will guarantee higher wages for construction workers.

Some business groups have opposed the repeals, arguing that the laws help foster a better job climate. However, limited studies have failed to show much economic impact from RTW laws.

“Right to Work is about freedom and personal choice,” the Michigan Chamber of Commerce said in a statement. “It’s about the freedom of employees to decide whether to join a union and pay dues or other equivalent fees to labor unions as a condition of employment, even in workplaces covered by union contracts. It gives people a personal choice in how to spend their hard-earned wages.”

The package passed by the Michigan Senate on Tuesday includes:

  • Senate Bill 34, sponsored by state Sen. Darrin Camilleri (D-Brownstown Twp..), restores former provisions within collective bargaining rights. The full Senate on Tuesday voted 20-17 along party lines to adopt the bill, to raucous applause.
  • House Bill 4004, sponsored by state Rep. Regina Weiss (D-Oak Park), would allow a requirement for an agency fee for nonunion members. After being passed by the House last week with a party-line vote of 56-53, the Senate panel reported it to the full chamber Tuesday with another party-line vote, followed by a party-line vote in the full Senate.
  • Senate Bill 6, sponsored by state Sen. Veronica Klinefelt (D-Eastpointe), reenacts prevailing wage. The full Senate on Tuesday voted 20-17 along party lines to adopt the bill.

SB 6 also includes a $75,000 appropriation, which shields it from the possibility of a voter referendum but drew criticism from Republican lawmakers. The 2012 RTW law also contained an appropriation, which prevented citizens from organizing a referendum to repeal it.

Several Republican amendments on the measures failed to pass in the chamber Tuesday, and no-vote explanations were offered from state Sens. Rick Outman (R-Six Lakes), Kevin Daley (R-Lum), Aric Nesbitt (R-Porter Twp.), Jonathan Lindsey (R-Coldwater), Dan Lauwers (R-Brockway), Lana Theis (R-Brighton), Thomas Albert (R-Lowell), Roger Hauck (R-Mount Pleasant) and Ed McBroom (R-Vulcan).

Lindsey called the push for a RTW repeal “a shameless kickback to political donors” and a “slap in the face to every blue-collar worker in Michigan.”

He also criticized Democrats for acting as “bullies,” “tyrants” and “fanatics” by not giving the bills more time for public exposure and testimony before bringing them to a floor vote — despite the GOP-led Legislature in 2012 not holding any hearings on the RTW bills before passing them. Lawmakers had also attempted to shut the public and some media out of the Capitol during the floor votes.

“Two and a half hours of committee testimony is a lot more than zero hours of committee testimony in 2012 when this bill was passed,” responded state Sen. Stephanie Chang (D-Detroit).


The House bills were previously adopted by the full House last week along party lines. The Senate bills now head to the House for votes there.

Earlier on Tuesday, the Senate Labor Committee reported HB 4004, HB 4007 and SB 5 along party lines, sending the bills out to the full Senate. 

During the hearing, Albert interjected often to challenge supporters of the bills. Many of those remarks provoked audible reactions from the largely pro-labor audience. 

He also criticized Camilleri for making a “snarky comment” after the Democrat corrected one of his claims.

“Your shilling for big corporations is really disrespectful here today,” Camilleri shot back.

Albert had several amendments to the bills, all of which failed.

Testifying supporters included the Michigan AFL-CIO, the Economic Policy Institute (EPI), a University of Arkansas professor, a union steward for UFCW and numerous other union representatives.

The Michigan Chamber of Commerce testified in opposition to the bills. 

The other pro-labor bills teed up to see action in the full chambers include:

  • House Bill 4005, sponsored by Weiss, would restore former provisions within collective bargaining rights.
  • House Bill 4007, sponsored by state Rep. Brenda Carter (D-Pontiac), would restore the state’s prevailing wage law by requiring the Michigan Department of Labor and Economic Opportunity (LEO) to set prevailing wage rates and fringe benefits for skilled-trades people working on state building projects. It was adopted in the Michigan House last week with a party-line vote of 56-53.
  • Senate Bill 5, sponsored by Camilleri, allows a requirement for agency fees for nonunion members to be included in bargaining agreements and as a condition of employment in the public sector.

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Laina G. Stebbins
Laina G. Stebbins

Laina G. Stebbins is a former Michigan Advance reporter. A lifelong Michigander, she is a graduate of Michigan State University’s School of Journalism, where she served as Founding Editor of The Tab Michigan State and as a reporter for the Capital News Service.