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Did Michigan lawmakers ram through ‘right to work’ laws?

at 06:02 AM ET, 12/20/2012


(James Fassinger/Reuters)

“The people of Michigan do not want this law, and Gov. [Rick] Snyder and the lawmakers who are trying to enact this anti-worker bill before their terms expire at the end of the year know full well that what they are doing is immoral and unjust. They are not carrying out the will of the people; they are punishing the people who voted to replace them in the new year.”

— American Federation of Government Employees president J. David Cox, Sr. in a news release, Dec. 11, 2012

(This post has been updated to reflect a change in the Pinocchio rating.)

Michigan last week enacted a pair of so-called right-to-work laws that allow employees to opt out of paying union dues when they work for union shops, dealing a blow to organized labor in a state that was once at the heart of that movement and which still claims the fifth-highest unionization rate in the nation.

J. David Cox, Sr., head of the American Federation of Government Employees union, released a statement the next day condemning the measures. He described their passage as an effort by GOP lawmakers to strike a blow to labor before leaving the GOP-controlled legislature.

“Today’s maneuver by Michigan Republicans to ram through a ‘right to work for less’ bill in the lame-duck session of the Michigan Legislature is a vile example of political revenge,” Cox said.

Let’s take a closer look at the Wolverine State’s 2012 election results to determine whether Republicans would have the numbers to pass the same legislation in 2013.

The Facts

Republicans controlled both chambers of the Michigan legislature and the governor’s office in 2012. That won’t change next year.

The GOP lost five seats in the state’s House of Representatives during the 2012 election, but they still maintained the majority. For the next session, they will hold 59 seats, compared to 51 for Democrats.

No seats in the GOP-controlled Senate were up for grabs this year.

The state’s Republican governor, Rick Snyder, is in the middle of a term, so he will remain in office for 2013.

Snyder initially took a moderate stance on the state’s collective bargaining rights, saying the GOP should not try to weaken them because the issue would be too divisive. But he also said he would sign right-to-work legislation if the legislature put such measures on his desk.

There is little reason to doubt that he would sign right-to-work legislation in the next session if the GOP-controlled Michigan legislature had decided to wait that long.

In terms of this year’s legislation, the House measure passed by a vote of 58-52, with all but six Republican representatives supporting it. The Senate versions passed overwhelmingly by votes of 22-16 and 22-4, with four GOP lawmakers opposing the bills.

Since no seats changed hands in the Senate, we can safely assume that the vote totals there would remain the same in 2013, and the bills would move forward.

As for the House, the five incoming Democrats could change the vote tally to 57-53 against the measure, which is obviously enough to block it from becoming law.

(UPDATE: Oops, we had a basic math mistake in an earlier version of this column. We mistakenly said the vote would be 58-57 in favor of the bill, which caused us to award a higher Pinocchio rating to Cox. Clearly that was wrong, and we thank readers for bringing it to our attention. Apologies to the union president and our readers for this error.)

Still, Michigan voters rejected a proposition this year to amend the state’s constitution to essentially prohibit right-to-work laws. The measure lost overwhelmingly, with 58 percent of voters opposing it.

Snyder and GOP lawmakers may nonetheless pay a political price for their handling of the legislation. A poll released this week by Public Policy Polling found that Snyder’s popularity has fallen dramatically in the past month, as has opinion of Republicans in the legislature. Only 41 percent of voters now support the right-to-work legislation, while 51 percent oppose it, PPP said.

The American Federation of Government Employees did not respond to a request for comment for this column.

The Pinocchio Test

The president of the federal-employee union said Michigan Republicans tried to “ram through” a right-to-work law in order to punish “the people who voted to replace them in the new year.” But this year’s election didn’t change the Republican control of the state legislature and governorship.

Michigan voters sent more Democrats to the state’s House of Representatives for 2013, which means the vote on the right-to-work bill might have tilted against the legislation in a hypothetical scenario next year. But it’s impossible to know for certain that the legislature, which will continue to be controlled by the GOP, would end up voting down the measure — especially if the state’s Republican lawmakers managed to find unity on the issue.

Beyond that, voters in the Great Lakes State roundly rejected a ballot measure that would have prohibited right-to-work legislation from becoming law.

That doesn’t mean most Michiganders wanted the right-to-work laws. They didn’t vote for them directly, after all, and opposition to the laws has grown since their passage. But the facts show that Cox went a bit too far with his assertions. The union president earns One Pinocchio.

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    Glenn Kessler has covered foreign policy, economic policy, the White House, Congress, politics, airline safety and Wall Street.

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