Oxfam: Michigan ranks 26th among states for workers’ rights in 2023

By: - September 4, 2023 5:55 am

UAW officials at the labor organization’s Region 1 headquarters on Aug. 20, 2023. | UAW photo

Michigan remains in the bottom half for best states to work in at 26th place, according to the annual ranking from Oxfam, a global organization focused on inequality and poverty.

The ranking considers policies and programs in place that protect workers’ abilities to organize, maintain wellness and be paid fairly. Since the ranking started coming out in 2018, Michigan has remained at around the same ranking, falling as low as 31st last year, but ranking the highest in 2022.

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Reflecting on Labor Day and current events like the Writers Guild of America strike and the threat of strike from union members at Detroit’s “Big Three” automakers, Michigan AFL-CIO spokesperson Aaron Pelo said there is a lot of public interest in how employers treat workers. He added that Michigan is starting to unravel years of policies that worked against the labor force.

“The past decade has really, I think, been marked by a lot of chipping away at workers rights and a lot of worker’s oppression policies coming out of an anti-worker Legislature,” Pelo said. “There’s kind of renewed attention and a renewed focus being paid to the labor movement and I think it’s kind of high time for that.”

The report from Oxfam notes Michigan’s $10.10 minimum wage amounts to 27.75% of the cost of living for a family of four and also knocks off points for municipalities not having the ability to locally raise minimum wages, unlike California, which was ranked the best state for workers.

Michigan sits in the middle of the Midwest rankings, outranking Wisconsin at 34th and Indiana at 37th. However, Ohio outperforms Michigan at 22nd place, having some of the best right-to-organize policies for unions and labor agreements. The Buckeye State was fifth in the nation in that specific category, tied with Illinois, which overall snagged the 10th position for states to work in. To get to the top 10, Illinois also ranked high in having worker protection policies, with the ninth best in the country.

Last week, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer lauded some of the bills she’s signed this year in her “What’s Next” address, as well as outlining future priorities to attract more people to Michigan. She highlighted issues individuals face in the state’s workforce, including gaps in paid family leave and medical leave, and vowed to address that problem.

“Right now, 77% of Michigan workers do not have access to paid family and medical leave,” Whitmer said. “They deserve better.”

Michigan ranked 22nd in 2023, according to Oxfam, in having worker protection policies such as paid sick and medical leave.

Barriers like family leave or child care can have negative consequences for families in the workforce and Michigan would benefit from better addressing gaps in those areas, Michigan Department of Labor and Economic Opportunity (LEO) Deputy Director Sean Egan said.

Michigan has been making strides to institute positive policies for workers under the Whitmer administration and especially in the current legislative session, Egan said, which is under the first bicameral Democratic majority in nearly 40 years.

In March, Whitmer signed two large reversals in labor law, to the celebration of unions and labor organizations across the state. 

Michigan State Police cars line up outside the Michigan Capitol during the Right to Work protest, December 2012 | Susan J. Demas

Whitmer signed into law the restoration of prevailing wage, which requires state funded projects to pay workers and provide benefits at union standards. Republican leadership in the Legislature approved a repeal to prevailing wage in 2018 after a citizen initiative bypassed the need for Republican former Gov. Rick Snyder’s approval.

And with Whitmer’s signature, Michigan became the first state in nearly six decades to repeal any Right to Work laws. Highly anticipated by and advocated for by union groups, it will repeal public-sector employees’ ability to opt out of requirements to pay union dues, starting in March 2024.

“No question, this spring, our legislators have brought in a flurry of things that are going to improve working conditions for people … which is going to have a big impact for working people,” Egan said. “We know that there’s been bills introduced to shore up pay equity, to make sure that we can actually close the wage gap between women and men, also people of color. … They have a lot on the docket for this fall.”

The labor law reversals were not without opposition, with the Michigan Chamber of Commerce releasing a statement as the Right to Work repeal advanced through the Legislature saying it takes away “freedom and personal choice” from workers.

“It gives people a personal choice in how to spend their hard-earned wages,” the statement said. “Our law has made us more competitive nationally, and especially with neighboring states, for desperately needed economic development projects and new jobs — and is a tool to keep companies headquartered in Michigan.” 

Policies that allow LEO to proactively address possible infringements of workers’ rights and help ensure equity in the workforce ultimately help the economy, Egan said, and preconceived notions that somehow increasing good things for working people will equate to a cost in economic growth are false.

“We’re talking a lot about recruiting and retaining talent here in Michigan and one of the ways that you have to do that is by building and supporting families in a strong middle class,” Egan said. “By raising living standards for everybody, we’re going to improve the economic outlook for everybody as well.”

And Michigan has a long way to go if it’s going to be the model for fair workplace practices that the governor and labor organizations are aiming for, Pelo said, but added that citizens in the last election showed they want leadership that supports workers.

“It’s been a decade or more of relentless attacks on workers rights and that takes work to undo. … Kind of the first step is getting people who support the labor movement the gavel in their hand, ” Pelo said. “I think the future is bright for workers in Michigan.” 

Oxfam 2013 Best States to Work in report


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Anna Liz Nichols
Anna Liz Nichols

Anna Liz Nichols covers government and statewide issues, including criminal justice, environmental issues, education and domestic and sexual violence. Anna is a former state government reporter for The Associated Press and most recently was a reporter for the Detroit News. Anna is a graduate of Michigan State University.