News Story

Michigan Is a Right-to-Work State

Violent union protest outside leads to vandalism, damaged equipment, a tent pulled down onto children and an assault

LANSING — Despite a violent union protest involving vandalism, property destruction and an assault, Michigan has become the nation’s 24th right-to-work state.

Gov. Rick Snyder signed the legislation at about 5:45 p.m. Tuesday, shortly after the bills had been sent to him from the legislature.

"This is a major day in Michigan's history," Gov. Snyder said after signing the legislation. "Again, I don't view this as anti-union at all. I believe this is pro-worker."

Under right-to-work laws, no employee is forced to pay dues or fees to a union as a condition of employment unless he or she freely chooses to do so.

"The state with the fifth highest union presence and the birth place of the UAW finally gave workers freedom to choose whether or not to pay a union," said F. Vincent Vernuccio, director of labor policy for the Mackinac Center for Public Policy. "This was done in what is seen as a union stronghold. It speaks volumes to the diminishing power of big labor across the country.

“By doing this, Michigan has put workers and job creators above special interests," Vernuccio said.

Earlier on Tuesday, it took the Michigan House of Representatives a little less than four hours to debate and pass House Bill 4003 and Senate Bill 116. Both of these bills were passed by the Michigan Senate last week. House Bill 4003 applies right-to-work to government unions, while Senate Bill 116 applies the measure to unions in the private sector.

As the bills were debated on the House floor Tuesday, a large contingent of union protesters (many of whom were bused in from other states) chanted and raised a ruckus outside the Capitol building on the front lawn. Other union protesters were in the building, but the numbers of those inside were limited to a level dictated by security concerns. 

There was a strong Michigan State Police presence within the building, as well as outside. To those on the House floor, the chants from outside were usually louder and more persistent than the voices of the protesters inside.

Outside, things got violent when union protesters tore down a tent hosted by a group of "worker freedom" supporters while people (including children) were inside. A Fox News contributor was punched in the face by multiple people.

Police on horseback were used to help quell the protesters. According to news accounts, some protesters were pepper-sprayed and a few arrests were made. As the events unfolded outside, many in the House chamber watched the situation on their laptop computers.

During their floor speeches some Democrats made reference to those outside the building as “the people of Michigan” who were being shut out.

“This is being forced down the peoples' throats," said Rep. Jon Switalski, D-Warren, "This is being forced down the middle classes' throats"

In response, Rep. Jeff Farrington, R- Utica, began his statement in support of right-to-work by pointing out that the vast majority of Michigan's workers weren't at the Capitol because they were busy at home or at work.

"I rise for the silent majority," Rep. Farrington said, prefacing his remarks.

Rep. Margaret O'Brien, R-Portage, pointed out that most of Michigan's workers aren't even in a union.

"Eighty-eight percent of the workers in this state are not unionized," Rep. O'Brien said. "We have hard-working people in Michigan who are fighting for employment whether they are in a union or not."

Rep. Mark Meadows, D-East Lansing, said the legislation should be called "freedom to freeload." He then referred to employees who opt out of unions and don't want to pay union fees as “scabs who take the benefits for which unions bargain without paying for them."

House Speaker Jase Bolger, R-Marshall, repeatedly said he found this line of argument offensive and asserted that the only reason employees who don't want to pay union fees remain subject to union-negotiated contracts is because the unions insist on claiming the exclusive right to bargain for them.

"There is nothing in the way of them (unions) collective bargaining only on behalf of their members," Rep. Bolger said. "In fact, that was more often the practice before the 1960s. The irony is that unions are free to choose."

Rep. Bolger also countered Democratic rhetoric that unions are in place because a majority of the employees voted to unionize, by reminding people that most of the state's unionization elections were held years ago.

"It's very rare to find a member who actually voted to be in a union," Rep. Bolger said.

In addition, Bolger cited the union-backed power grab ballot proposal, Proposal 2, as a prime example of union officials attempting to do something that did not have the approval of union members.

Although the House gallery was filled with protesters, they were rarely disruptive. There is a limited amount of seating in the gallery and, as a result, the number of protesters who could view the debate from that vantage point was limited as well.

Overall, the protesters within the Capitol building appeared relatively well behaved.

During the floor debate, Rep. Jim Townsend, D-Royal Oak, claimed that the legislation was an attempt by extremists to return Michigan to the “gilded age of 100 years ago.

"We built up the middle class in Michigan, but now they want to turn back the clock,” Rep. Townsend said. "Dick DeVos and other robber barons want to return us to the gilded age."

Rep. Mike Shirkey, R-Clark Lake, read aloud former President John F. Kennedy's quote from the time of JFK’s 1962 Executive Order (10988), which created right-to-work for federal employees.

"Every person shall have the right, freely and without fear of penalty or reprisal, to form, join, or assist a labor organization . . . or to refrain from any such activity," Shirkey said, attributing the words to JFK.

Rep. Shenelle Jackson, D-Detroit, argued that in the next elections the Democrats would gain control of the House, the governor's office and possibly the Senate because of the Republican drive to enact right-to-work.

"What you're doing today will only serve to empower us," Rep. Jackson said. "We will win back this chamber, possibly take the Senate back and certainly win the governorship”

Rep. Lisa Posthumus Lyons, R- Alto, insisted that collective bargaining wouldn't be damaged by the legislation.

"This bill is not an attack on collective bargaining," Rep. Lyons said. "This gives a union the freedom to make its case. This is the day that Michigan freed its workers."

Rep. Doug Geiss, D-Taylor, said that Gov. Snyder was mistaken if he believed the bills could be signed into law and then the politics of Michigan would move forward.

"I say to you sir, that this is not possible," Rep. Geiss said. "This (right-to-work) is the nuclear option. We said we hope we never get to this point. This is the most divisive issue we have had to deal with.

"There will be blood . . . there will be repercussions," he said. "We know we will see people (in union shops) who say, 'I'm not going to pay dues anymore — and there will be fights'."

Shortly after Rep. Geiss's comments, the tent with children in it was cut down and Steven Crowder was assaulted.

On House Bill 4003 the vote was 58-51. On Senate Bill 116 the vote was 58-42. Six Republicans voted "no" along with the Democrats on both bills. They were Reps: Anthony Forlini, R-Harrison Township; Ken Goike, R-Ray Township; Ken Horn, R-Frankenmuth; Ed McBroom, R-Vulcan; Pat Somerville, R-New Boston and Dale Zorn, R-Ida.

Michigan Capitol Confidential is the news source produced by the Mackinac Center for Public Policy. Michigan Capitol Confidential reports with a free-market news perspective.