Right to Work repeal will make Michigan a leading state for workers’ rights again, unions say

By: - March 21, 2023 3:55 am

Starbucks workers strike in front of their Ann Arbor store at 300 S. Main St., Nov. 17, 2022 | Laina G. Stebbins

A flurry of expected signatures from Gov. Gretchen Whitmer are set to accomplish what Michigan unions have been awaiting for 11 long years — a repeal of anti-labor laws like Right to Work, which suppress workers’ collective bargaining abilities and weaken union resources.

Other pro-labor reforms making their way through the Legislature include reinstating prevailing wage, which advocates say will mean higher wages for construction workers. 

Labor representatives and experts told the Advance that these reforms come amid the national and statewide backdrop of increased interest in reviving unions, and will boost Michigan into the spotlight once again as a leader in workers’ rights.

“I think it’s a sign of the times,” said Jennifer Sherer, a senior state policy coordinator for the Economic Policy Institute (EPI). “It is a sign of how stark extreme inequality has become, how aware the majority of workers and voters are of how unequal our economy and unequal our power is distributed in our workplaces right now.

“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.”

Pro-labor bills in the Legislature:

House Bill 4004, which repeals part of RTW regarding union dues, has passed both the Michigan House and Senate along party lines and now heads to Whitmer for her signature.

Senate Bill 6 and Senate Bill 34, regarding collective bargaining rights and reenacting prevailing wage, have been passed by the Senate along party lines. The House still needs to adopt both before heading to Whitmer’s desk.

House Bill 4005 and House Bill 4007, also regarding collective bargaining rights and prevailing wage, have been passed by the Michigan House and now await votes in the full Senate.

Senate Bill 5 on union fees needs to be reported out of the Senate Labor Committee before receiving votes in both chambers.

The highly controversial RTW laws, which were signed by GOP former Gov. Rick Snyder in 2012 after their passage brought roughly 12,000 protesters to the state Capitol, has weakened unions by allowing all workers to receive union benefits without paying dues.

Twenty-seven other states currently have RTW laws. Michigan’s new Democratic-led state Legislature has passed bills to repeal these laws, which would make the state the first in nearly more than half-century to do so.

“Working people are carefully watching how their elected officials act. This vote shows which legislators respect workers, and which are only accountable to corporate executives,” said Jessica Lannon, a nurse who testified in favor of the legislation at the Capitol and a Michigan Nurses Association (MNA) board member.

“This vote signals that Michigan is prepared to lead the way once again when it comes to legally protecting workers’ rights,” Lannon said.

Members of many established unions in Michigan like Lannon’s, which have been around long before 2012’s RTW laws were enacted, are well aware of the history and the changes to labor that have come as a result in the past decade.

That is not the case with bargaining units that are too new to have been touched by RTW laws, like the newly organized Chipotle and Starbucks locations in Michigan.

Atulya Dora-Laskey is one of the organizers behind the Delta Township restaurant that became the country’s first unionized Chipotle in August. He told the Advance on Monday that he and his fellow workers feel “lucky” to have avoided RTW.

Union members watch the state Senate pass historic labor laws, March 14, 2023 | Laina G. Stebbins

“As one of the newer unionized shops in Michigan, we have never had to deal with the effects of Right to Work yet because it really only comes in once you get a contract,” Dora-Laskey said. “We’re very excited to be lucky enough to never have to deal with the effects.

“ … It’s important to remember that Right to Work is a law that was really crafted by employers and bosses. And there’s a reason that employers and bosses want to divide up the solidarity that is found within unions and make unions not as strong as they would be … because they know that when workers get divided up, they’re much weaker by themselves and much easier to be taken advantage of,” he continued.

One major argument from proponents of RTW — including Republican lawmakers and groups like the Michigan Chamber of Commerce — is that having RTW laws in place makes the state more attractive to employers.

“Being a Right to Work law state makes us more competitive nationally,” said Wendy Block, senior vice president of business advocacy and member engagement for the Michigan Chamber of Commerce, during her March 14 testimony while a Senate panel was taking up the RTW repeal bills.

“It helps Michigan compete for desperately needed jobs and economic development projects,” Block said. “ … It is a big factor. It puts your state in the game.”

Dora-Laskey countered that there is a problematic, underlying reason for this.

“We really have to think about, why exactly is that? It’s not because they’re coming to Michigan thinking that workers are being treated better. 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,” he said.

Dora-Laskey, Lannon and Sherer said they envision that repealing RTW will help with future union organizing drives.

“Right now, only 11.3% of the workforce is unionized, despite unions having a 71% favorability rating,” Lannon said. “This is because there are currently far too many hurdles that workers must jump over to form a strong union.

“Restoring the rights of workers to negotiate union security clauses in Michigan takes an important step towards addressing that imbalance.”

More than 10,000 people protested Right to Work at the Michigan Capitol, December 2012 | Susan J. Demas

She added that even despite anti-labor legislation, about 1,700 nurses and health care professionals have become part of the MNA since 2012. 

“We hope that in the next decade the number of newly unionized MNA members will be even higher,” Lannon said.

“We have already seen evidence of more healthcare workers wanting to organize in 2023,” echoed Mary McLendon, who is a Detroit nurse and union leader for SEIU Healthcare Michigan Workers. “Workers are already feeling the energy behind these reforms and taking action.”

Labor advocates also emphasized that repealing RTW is a foundational first step and the “tip of the iceberg” in restoring workers’ rights in Michigan.

“This is repairing something that was broken, but people have lots of important ideas for how we can go much further and strengthen workers’ rights,” Sherer said.


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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.