The Michigan right-to-work battle, explained

December 10, 2012

The latest front in the battle between Republicans and organized labor is Michigan, where activists in Lansing recently began protests against a measure that would make the state the 24th in the nation to adopt a right-to-work law. The protests are expected to grow in size later this week, as the measure approaches final passage. Below is what you need to know about what is going on in Michigan, and why it matters. (Also check out our colleague Philip Rucker's excellent piece from the weekend on the battle.)


Pro-union demonstrators crowd the Rotunda to chant last Wednesday in the Capitol in Lansing. (Dale G. Young -- AP)

So, what is all the fuss about?

Last week, the GOP-controlled state Senate and House each passed right-to-work measures over the opposition of Democrats in both chambers, enraging union activists and leaders, and sparking heated protests in the state Capitol. Gov. Rick Snyder (R) has said he will sign a right-to-work measure if it comes to his desk. Snyder's stance marks an about face; he had previously said that right-to-work was not on his agenda

What does 'right-to-work' mean?

The term refers to a law that would prohibit requiring workers to pay union dues as a condition of employment. Republicans favor the law because they say it will attract businesses and provide workers with more choice. Union leaders and Democrats see it as a move to curb the power of labor and reduce its influence. Currently, 23 other states have signed such measures into law (here is a handy map of which states have right-to-work laws on the books). One more important thing to note: Police and firefighters could be exempt from the new law. 

So, what's next?

Each chamber of the state legislature has to pass the other one's bill, then Snyder would have to sign off, something that could happen as soon as Tuesday. Snyder is meeting with Democrats on Monday, but the bottom line is that the right-to-work measure is expected to pass. The protests are also expected to get more intense in Lansing as final votes grow near. Police have maintained a steady presence in and around the Capitol building. 

What does President Obama think?

Obama is visiting Michigan on Monday afternoon to pitch his plan for averting the "fiscal cliff," and it will be interesting to see what, if anything, he says about right-to-work while he is there. A White House spokesman said last week that Obama "has long opposed so-called ‘right to work’ laws and he continues to oppose them now." Labor was a key Obama ally during the election, which adds yet another political element to the whole situation. One more thing: Snyder is slated to meet Obama on the tarmac when he arrives. (What a photo-op that will be!) 

What could this mean for Snyder and Michigan Republicans? And what about organized labor?

If the measure passes and is signed into law as expected, it looks like it would be difficult to overturn. In Ohio last year, Democratic activists successfully overturned a measure to curb collective bargaining, but in Michigan, spending bills can't be overturned via referendum. Since an appropriation was tacked on, the Michigan right-to-work measure would fall under that umbrella

Activists have already said they will explore the possibilities of trying to recall Republican legislators and Snyder (though, the governor faces reelection in two years, and Democrats might well keep their focus on defeating him then) if the measure passes. In Wisconsin, Democrats waged a wide-scale recall effort Republicans and Gov. Scott Walker (R) after he signed a 2011 measure to curb collective bargaining. They gained ground in the state legislature, but did not dislodge Walker from power. 

For labor, if the right-to-work law is signed, it would mean another setback and a new fight for unions. And there is an added symbolic element , as Michigan is the birthplace of the United Autoworkers union.

Read more on this topic from the Washington Post:

Wonkblog: What do right-to-work laws do to a state's economy?

Showdown looms in Michigan over right-to-work legislation

Sean Sullivan covers national politics for “The Fix.”
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Sean Sullivan | December 10, 2012