Michigan Repeals ‘Right-To-Work’ Law In Historic Win For Unions

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Democrats have taken power in Michigan, and they’re using it.

On Friday, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer (D) signed a bill repealing the state’s decade-old “right-to-work” law, delivering a setback for the state’s conservative movement and a landmark victory for its labor unions.

“Today we are coming together to restore workers’ rights, protect Michiganders on the job, and grow Michigan’s middle class,” Whitmer said in a statement.

Right-to-work laws forbid unions and employers from entering into agreements that require every worker under the contract to pay fees to cover the cost of bargaining and representation. Unions despise the laws and say they lead to “free-riding,” in which workers choose not to pay union dues but still enjoy the benefits of a union contract.

Republican leaders passed the state’s right-to-work law a decade ago. But once Democrats regained the levers of power after last year’s elections, they quickly set about dismantling it. Both the state House and Senate recently passed repeal bills on party-line votes and sent the legislation to Whitmer’s desk.

Unions hailed the repeal on Friday. Rob Bieber, head of the Michigan AFL-CIO, said the state had “restored the balance of power” for workers.

“After decades of attacks on working people, it’s a new day in Michigan, and the future is bright,” Bieber said in a statement.

Right-to-work laws were made legal by Congress in 1947 and have spread to a majority of states since then, including some with historically strong labor movements, such as Wisconsin. Michigan Republicans, led by then-Gov. Rick Snyder (R), passed the Michigan law in 2012, delivering a blow to organized labor in a state that’s the heart of the U.S. auto industry.

Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer signed a repeal of Michigan's right-to-work law, showing Democrats' new power in the state.
Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer signed a repeal of Michigan’s right-to-work law, showing Democrats’ new power in the state.

Bill Pugliano via Getty Images

The Economic Policy Institute, a left-leaning think tank, said the legislation signed by Whitmer marks the first repeal of a state right-to-work law in nearly 60 years.

With the law now off the books, private-sector unions in the state can once again negotiate what are known as “union security” clauses. These are requirements that every worker in the bargaining unit pay fees to cover the costs associated with bargaining and enforcing the contract. (Michigan lawmakers also voted to repeal the right-to-work law for public-sector unions as well, but that move was merely symbolic since the U.S. Supreme Court made the entire U.S. public sector right-to-work in 2018.)

The right-to-work bill was not Whitmer’s only pro-labor move on Friday. She also signed another bill that will restore the state’s “prevailing wage” law, which sets minimum pay and benefit requirements for employees on government projects, like construction and service workers. Often criticized by conservatives, such laws keep pay rates higher on government-funded worksites and encourage the use of union labor.

Whitmer’s office said restoring the law would “put more money in people’s pockets” and guarantees Michigan has a “well-trained, skilled workforce.”