Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder
(CBS NEWS) -- Michigan Republican Gov. Rick Snyder is expected to sign right-to-work
legislation as early as today that will prevent employees in the state
from having to pay dues to a union. Appearing at an event outside
Detroit Monday, President Obama assailed the legislation as a political ploy designed
to "take away your right to bargain for better wages"; he referred to
the legislation as "right to work for less money."
Unions are outraged that right-to-work legislation has come to the
state that is, to some degree, the symbolic heart of the labor movement;
conservatives say that it will give more freedom to workers and create
"more and better jobs in Michigan," in Snyder's words.
is complicated, starting with that carefully-crafted name - who, you
might wonder, would oppose the right to work? Below, we explore the
debate around right-to-work laws and what the current fight means for
Michigan and the rest of the nation.
What is right-to-work?
the name that proponents have given to legislation that prevents
agreements in which employees are required to pay union dues.
without a right-to-work law in place, American workers can't be forced
to join a union. But many unions and companies have arrangements in
which workers are required to pay union dues as a condition for
employment, even if they don't join the union. Right-to-work laws make
such agreements illegal. Employees can choose not to join a union,
though they would still receive the benefits of union representation if
their company is unionized.
Supporters of such laws -
largely Republicans and business interests, including the Koch brothers -
say workers should have the right not to pay union dues if they don't
want to. (They also call the laws "freedom to work" legislation.) In
addition, they say that right-to-work laws are good for business.
Economist Thomas Holmes in 2000 found that
growth in manufacturing in counties near the border in right-to-work
states was 26 percentage points greater than non-right-to-work states - a
finding trumpeted by right-to-work supporters.
- largely Democrats and unions - say the laws are designed to weaken
unions. If employees are not required to pay union dues, they point out,
unions are likely to shrink and labor will have less leverage to engage
in collective bargaining. That results, they say, in lower wages and
worse working conditions. Opponents of the law also say it's no surprise that businesses are drawn to states with anti-union policies,
as well as looser regulation and lower taxes, but that doesn't prove
such policies are good for the economy - and workers shouldn't have to
suffer in a race-to-the-bottom battle between states to appeal to
So what has happened in Michigan?
Last Thursday, Michigan's GOP-led legislature passed bills to make Michigan the 24th state with right-to-work laws on the books. The move came as something of a surprise, in part because Snyder, the governor, has long maintained that right-to-work was not on his agenda.
The first-term governor, who has until now largely been viewed as a
moderate, said Thursday he plans to sign the measure despite it being a
Thousands of union workers
protested the vote Thursday in Michigan's capitol, Lansing, chanting
"shame on you" at lawmakers; eight were arrested. The fight over
right-to-work has particular resonance in Michigan, which is arguably
the heart of the labor movement: "Sit down" strikes in Flint in the
1930s launched the United Auto Workers as a major power and led to the
unionization of the U.S. auto industry.
Unions have already seen decades of setbacks, both in membership and
public policy: Over the past half-century, the percentage of American
workers in a union has declined from 30 percent to less than 12 percent.
The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics says that Michigan has the
fifth-highest percentage of unionized workers in the nation; 2012
election exit polls showed that 28 percent of Michigan voters live in
On Monday, seven Democratic
members of Congress called on Snyder to either veto or delay the
right-to-work legislation, saying that it will create discord in the
state that will last for years. "The Governor listened, and he told us
he would seriously consider our concerns," Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., told reporters after the meeting. Hours later, however, Snyder tweeted, "Freedom to work is all about creating more and better jobs in Michigan." Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said in
a statement Monday that Republicans are attempting "to assault the
collective bargaining process and undermine the standard of living it
has helped foster."
President Obama won Michigan by
nearly 10 points in November - though the state's voters also rejected a
UAW-backed amendment that would have enshrined collective bargaining
rights in the state's constitution. Last Thursday the White House came
out squarely against the proposed legislation, with spokesman Matt
Lehrich saying "[t]he
President believes our economy is stronger when workers get good wages
and good benefits, and he opposes attempts to roll back their rights."
The "big three" U.S. automakers, meanwhile, say they are neutral on the
ugly scene is expected in Lansing today. With Snyder standing by his
plans to sign the legislation after two versions are reconciled,
protesters are set to descend on the state capitol. According to The Detroit News,
members of the United Auto Workers Local 600 engaged in civil
disobedience training over the weekend, and members of the Michigan
Nurses Association plan to gather on the capitol steps with duct tape
over their mouths. Republicans, meanwhile, have set up call centers so
that volunteers can contact Michigan GOP House and Senate lawmakers and
ask them to follow through on their support for the measure. Before it
can get to Snyder's desk, members must sign off on the bill from the
UAW President Bob King says that if
the measure does pass, the union will consider efforts to recall state
lawmakers as well as Snyder, in a potential repeat of the recall fight
that took place in Wisconsin. Last year Ohio voters overturned a measure
banning collective bargaining, but that won't happen in Michigan: The
right-to-work language was attached to a spending measure, and spending
bills cannot be overturned by referendum. Because Snyder already faces
reelection in two years, there may not be a big push to recall him. But
Democrats and union members will at the very least be energized in
efforts to keep him from a second term.
commentators, meanwhile, are despairing at what the likely passage of
the law in Michigan portends in the rest of the nation. "
For a long time the United States has existed as a 'house divided' in this regard," wrote Matt Yglesias in Slate.
"Democrats in states like Virginia and Nevada didn't seriously try to
repeal right-to-work laws, while Republicans in the northeast and
midwest didn't try to implement them. But if right-to-work can pass in
Michigan, then why shouldn't Republicans press for it in Wisconsin or
Ohio or Pennsylvania?"