News Story

US House Would Overturn Michigan's Right-to-Work Law

Michigan voters rejected similar union overreach in 2012

Federal pro-union legislation that would effectively nullify right-to-work laws in Michigan and 26 other states was adopted with little fanfare by the U.S. House of Representatives earlier this month.

The Protecting the Right to Organize, or PRO Act, has a number of provisions aimed at giving unions an edge in organizing efforts. It also would rescind a 72-year-old amendment to the National Labor Relations Act. That’s the law, from the New Deal era, which lets states enact right-to-work laws. Under such laws, unions and employers may not enter into contracts that require employees to pay union dues as a condition of employment. Were the PRO Act implemented, it would force thousands of workers back into union membership.

The PRO Act also contains a card check provision, under which a union can organize a worksite if it gets a majority of people there to sign cards, often in one-on-one situations, in its favor. The card check route of organizing displaces the need for the union to secure workers’ support in a secret-ballot election.

The House approved the bill on a Feb. 6 vote of 224-194, almost entirely along party lines, with Democrats in favor and Republicans opposed. Michigan’s delegation was evenly split; seven Democrats voted yes, and six Republicans and one independent (former Republican Rep. Justin Amash) voted no.

Supporters of right-to-work laws see them in civil rights terms, saying they protect workers’ freedom not to be compelled into making financial contributions to an organization they disagree with. Union backers say right-to-work allows for free riders, individuals who receive benefits from the collective bargaining that unions do, without sharing the burden of paying for negotiations.

Once a union establishes a presence in a worksite, it usually maintains its status as the bargaining agent for all workers. Very few unions have held recertification elections, during which workers vote on whether they still wish to be organized by any union, or represented by their current union. Under state law, periodic recertification votes are not required. It is likely that few unionized workers in the state have ever participated in a union certification or renewal vote. In some worksites, the workers who helped usher in the union retired years ago, while today’s workers are bound by the union agreement.

Michigan’s right-to-work statute was signed by Republican Gov. Rick Snyder in December 2012 against a background of raucous demonstrations at the Capitol by pro-union forces. Six weeks earlier, a solid 57-42 majority of voters said “no” to Proposal 2, a union-funded constitutional amendment to essentially prohibit any right-to-work law from taking effect in Michigan.

This month’s U.S. House vote, by contrast, went almost unnoticed, coming at the end of a week in which President Donald Trump was acquitted in his Senate impeachment trial, and the coronavirus became an international health emergency.

The only member of the Michigan delegation to issue a public comment was Rep. Brenda Lawrence, D-Southfield, who lauded an amendment she proposed, and the House adopted, on the timing of union elections. She said the PRO Act also “allows unions to collect fair-share fees to cover the cost of representation.”

Opponents were relatively silent, as well. Indiana Republican Larry Bucshon, a congressman who did speak out, said the PRO Act is “simply a partisan messaging bill that is aimed at advancing the interests of union bosses.” It would, he said, “workers to join a union against their will and pay millions to labor unions.”

The lack of attention likely stems from the conventional wisdom that the legislation is doomed in the Republican-led U.S. Senate. A Senate version of the bill was introduced nearly a year ago, but it has yet to be scheduled for a committee hearing. Michigan’s two Democratic senators, Debbie Stabenow and Gary Peters, are among its co-sponsors. Neither responded to a request for comment last week.

At the state level, a bill to repeal Michigan’s right-to-work law is likely to meet a similar fate in the Committee on Government Operations in Michigan’s Republican-controlled House. It’s House Bill 4034, introduced by Rep. Brian Elder, D-Bay City. Elder also sponsored House Bill 4884, to reimpose the old prevailing wage law (repealed in 2018), which prohibited schools and government agencies from awarding construction contracts to the lowest bidder unless the firm paid union-level wages and benefits.