Mar 14, 2023 - Politics

Breaking down Michigan's right-to-work law

Illustration of multiple clenched fists in the air.

Illustration: Lindsey Bailey/Axios

The decade-old fight over Michigan's most controversial labor law could be close to an end.

Driving the news: House Democrats moved forward legislation to repeal the 2012 right-to-work law last Thursday as union leaders cheered them on from the House gallery.

  • The proposal is being heard before the Senate Labor Committee Tuesday at 8:30am.
  • Gov. Gretchen Whitmer has expressed support for repealing the measure.

Why it matters: The state's right-to-work law prohibits requiring workers to pay union dues as a condition of employment. Democrats and union advocates say right-to-work reduces union membership, which ultimately weakens the political power of unions, and hasn't lured businesses to the state like Republicans had hoped.

  • Republicans say right-to-work gives workers more freedom and attracts businesses to the state.
  • This fight dates back to 2012, when the passage of right to work laws by Republicans prompted fiery protests at the state Capitol.

What they're saying: "Right-to-work was never about freedom — it was simply about control," Rep. Regina Weiss (D-Oak Park), the bill's lead sponsor, said in her House floor speech last week.

  • Weiss cited a 1961 speech from Martin Luther King Jr. regarding these laws: "In our glorious fight for civil rights, we must guard against being fooled by false slogans, such as 'right to work.' It is a law to rob us of our civil rights and job rights."

The other side: "(Repealing right-to-work) will lead to fewer companies, fewer economic opportunities coming to our state," Republican Minority Leader Matt Hall (R-Kalamazoo) said, speaking in opposition on the House floor. "(Southwest Michigan First) testified that we will just be off the list. Many companies look solely to right-t0-work states."

  • Republicans warn that the state will need to continue adding incentives to lure businesses should Democrats approve the repeal.

Zoom out: Research from the Economic Policy Institute found that wages in right-to-work states were 3.1% lower than others after accounting for cost of living differences.

  • A separate study from the National Bureau of Economic Research found that states with these laws see lower political participation than states without them, as well as reduced support for the Democratic Party.
Michigan became the 24th state to enact right-to-work laws in 2012. Data: NCSL; Map: Kavya Beheraj and Nicki Camberg/Axios.
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