Bills that would make Michigan the 24th right-to-work state in the nation passed in the House and Senate on Dec. 11, with the backing of Gov. Rick Snyder (R), who signed them into law later that day.
Workers in right-to-work states have the freedom to choose if they want to be members of a union and are not forced to pay union dues or agency fees as a condition of employment.
Michigan is the home of the United Auto Workers union, long a powerful ally of the Democratic Party. The passage of right-to-work in Michigan is a sign of the decline of labor union power, said David Denholm, president of the Public Service Research Foundation, which studies the influence of labor unions on government.
‘Union Influence Has Fallen’
"The very idea that the Michigan legislature could approve a right-to-work law is an indication of how much union political influence has fallen and what a terrible mistake union officials made by becoming a handmaiden of the Democratic Party,” said Denholm.
He noted union membership fell from 30 percent of the Michigan workforce in 1983 to 17.5 percent in 2011. During that time union membership fell from more than 1 million to less than 675,000 even though employment increased by more than 500,000 in the state.
“This decline is obviously having an impact on organized labor's political clout,” Denholm said. “Freeing Michigan workers from the shackles of compulsory unionism is a very positive step in the right direction for a state that has suffered from the negative economic and employment effects of union influence."
Legislation Moves Quickly
The legislative action came on the heels of a morning news conference on December 6 that was held by Snyder, Republican legislative leaders, and union members who support right-to-work. At that news conference, Snyder, Senate Majority Leader Randy Richardville (R-Monroe), and House Speaker Jase Bolger (R-Marshall) all expressed support for right-to-work.
In the late afternoon of December 6, the bills began moving. House Bill 4054 was passed by the House. Later, Senate Bill 116 and House Bill 4003 were passed by the Senate after lengthy debate. The bills moved to the other chambers and final passage on December 11. Snyder didn't hesitate about what he would do when a final bill hits his desk, saying that when the bill "arrives on my desk, I plan on signing it."
HB 4003 applies to public sector unions, with the exception of police and firefighters. Senate Bill 116 applies to private sector unions. Under the plan, the two bills that are expected to eventually get to Snyder's desk are HB 4003 and SB 166.
Republicans Dominate Vote
In the House, the vote was 58-52, with six Republicans voting "no." All of the Democrats voted “no.”
In the Senate, the right-to-work legislation passed on a 22-16 vote. Four Republican senators voted “no” along with all of the Democrats.
Earlier in the day, the Capitol building was jammed with union protesters. Ultimately the outside doors were locked for security reasons so that no more protesters could get in.
However, those already inside were allowed to stay. Some of them filled the galleries in the House and Senate chambers and could be heard reacting to the debates.
Lawmakers who voted for right-to-work bills on December 6 said the protesters didn't influence them.
‘Were Expecting More Protesters’
"We found them extremely underwhelming," said Rep. Jeff Farrington (R-Utica). "We were expecting a lot more. We were surprised that so few turned out.
"We knew a lot of those people were bused in," Rep. Farrington said. "This wasn't a grassroots effort."
"If the unions can justify their existence to the workers, they'll get the workers' support," said Rep. Joe Haveman (R-Holland). "We're basically saying the unions will have to do the kinds of things we've come to expect in the private sector."
‘Trying to Make State Competitive’
Rep. Aric Nesbitt (R-Lawton) said the presence and behavior of the protesters didn't have any effect on him.
"When it comes down to it, we are trying to make Michigan more competitive nationally and internationally," Nesbitt said. "It all comes down to more and better jobs."
Rep. Frank Foster (R-Pellston) said he thinks Michigan GOP lawmakers aren't likely to be influenced by protesters shouting at the Capitol.
"I think a lot of us saw what happened in Wisconsin," Foster said. "By comparison it didn't seem like what happened here today was much."
'Support In Union Ranks Dwindling'
"It just tends to show that support in union ranks is dwindling," Foster said. "We took some tough votes last year and there were protesters here a lot then, too. On this issue we voted on today, we'd done our research. We were confident in our positions."
Democrats offered several amendments to the bills, including one that would have postponed the legislation from taking effect until 2014 and another that would have made the legislation null and void, if Michigan's unemployment rate didn't drop by 1 percentage point per year.
Republicans easily voted down all of the attempted amendments.
During the comment period just prior to the final vote on Senate Bill 116, Democrats made long statements against the legislation. The longest was basically a filibuster attempt by Sen. Bert Johnson (D-Highland Park), who read a report that included a summary of the history of labor unions in the U.S. and what appeared to be an anti-right-to-work analysis.
Jack Spencer (email@example.com ) is Capitol affairs specialist for Michigan Capitol Confidential, a news service of the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, where a version of this article first appeared. Used with permission.