The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Michigan Senate repeals right-to-work law in historic victory for organized labor

In a narrow 20-17 vote on Tuesday, the state’s Senate voted to revoke legislation that allows workers in union jobs to opt out of membership and dues paying, sending it back to the state’s House for final approval

Union members and supporters gather in the Capitol rotunda in Michigan on Tuesday as they wait for a right-to-work bill to be voted on by the state's Senate. (Todd McInturf/Detroit News/AP)
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The Michigan Senate approved a bill to repeal the state’s right-to-work laws in a major victory for organized labor, setting the state up to become one of the first to overturn such laws, which allow workers to opt out of union membership and dues payments.

In a narrow 20-17 vote on Tuesday, along party lines, the Michigan Senate passed the bill to revoke the state’s right-to-work laws, sending it back to the state’s House for final approval.

The House voted to pass a similar law last week, but must sign off on final language. Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer (D) has said she will sign the bill.

There are now right-to-work laws in 27 U.S. states, mostly in the South and Midwest. The laws have been credited with the dramatic decline in union membership and growing income inequality in the United States over the past several decades, as some workers choose to save money in the short-term by not paying for union dues when it’s optional. Union membership in the United States dropped to 10.1 percent in 2022, a historic low. A body of research has shown that union members tend to earn higher wages than their nonunion counterparts in similar roles.

Hundreds of union members piled into the Michigan Capitol on Tuesday to cheer on the bill.

“This is what happens when we elect union members to halls of power,” Liz Shuler, president of the AFL-CIO, the nation’s largest labor federation, tweeted on Tuesday evening after news broke of the bill’s passage. “We fight and we WIN for working people.”

Under Republican control of state government, Michigan passed its right-to-work law in 2012. The state has lost roughly 40,000 union members, or 2.6 percent of its union members, since then, according to Bureau of Labor Statistics data.

Wisconsin, West Virginia and Kentucky have since adopted their own right-to-work laws under Republican-controlled state legislatures.

It is exceedingly rare for states to overturn right-to-work laws. The Economic Policy Institute, a Washington-based think tank, said if Whitmer signs the bill into law, Michigan will be the first state to repeal a right-to-work law in nearly six decades. (Missouri voters overwhelmingly shot down their own legislature’s right-to-work laws in a 2018 ballot referendum.)

Business groups in Michigan have opposed repealing the state’s right-to-work laws, saying it would remove workers’ freedom to decide whether to affiliate with unions and pay union dues.

“This is exactly the type of shortsighted, politically-charged policy that imposes burdensome, unnecessary hurdles to generating more and better jobs and the economic growth that benefits all Michiganders,” said Michigan Chamber of Commerce President Jim Holcomb in a statement last week.

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