Michigan Senate repeals right-to-work, sends bill to Whitmer for signature
Senator Sarah Anthony, left, talks with Chad Fabbro, of Vassar, outside Senate chambers. Fabbro is the financial secretary of UAW Local 598 out of Flint. The Michigan Senate committee voted to repeal the 2012 right-to-work law and re-establishing a prevailing wage standard for state projects. The measure now goes to the governor for signature. | Todd McInturf / Detroit News via AP

LANSING, Mich.—To huge cheers from workers who packed the galleries, the Michigan Senate voted 20-17 along party lines on Senate Bill 34 to officially end “right-to-work” laws in Michigan on March 21. The State House passed its version of the bill, HB4005, previously on March 8.

According to sources within the United Food and Commercial Workers, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer (D) is expected to sign the repeal of right-to-work, an historic win for union workers and all Michigan workers, in the coming weeks.

When the Senate bill came to the floor, union members from across the state filled the gallery and overflowed into the rotunda, singing songs such as “Solidarity Forever” and “Mighty, Mighty Union.” Some counter-protesters attempted to start a “My job my choice” chant, but they were quickly drowned out by union members chanting “Scabs go home!”

One union member, when asked about what the repeal meant, said: “I wanted to be there and be part of history instead of watching it on TV. Being a part of a union means I’m a part of something bigger, being part of something I stand for, and being safe and secure in the workplace. Being a (shop) steward means I can give voice to and help out my fellow workers.”

After the bill officially passed the Senate, workers let out a collective cheer in the gallery.

Once Democrats won majorities in both the State House and Senate in the 2022 elections, unions and their supporters immediately began the effort to repeal anti-labor laws. Prime among the targets: Repeal of right-to-work and restoration of project labor agreements, a measure that lets unions and governments set wages and working conditions on government-funded construction.

Unions such as the Teachers (AFT), the United Food and Commercial Workers, the Laborers, the Auto Workers, the Michigan Nurses Association, and others went to work to bring this issue to the forefront of the political stage and rally support. The Michigan District of the Communist Party contributed by collecting signatures from workers all across the state for several months in support of the repeal.

Right-to-work exists in 27 states in the U.S., and it declares that workers who are a part of a bargaining unit are not required to contribute financially while still receiving the benefits of being in the union, including union-negotiated pay scales and protections against unjust discipline.

In 2021, non-union workers in Michigan receiving union protections hit a record high of 10.21%. While Republicans consistently complain about people on welfare being “freeloaders,” they seem to have no problem with workers freeloading off of their union while not contributing to their efforts.

Right-to-work has its origins in the 1930s and ’40s as a means to segregate white and Black workers. Vance Muse, a conservative lobbyist, is credited with popularizing the misleading term “right-to-work” and is quoted as saying during the campaign to install the policy in Arkansas in 1944, “White women and men will be forced into organizations [labor unions] with black African apes whom they will have to call ‘brother’ or lose their jobs.”

In 1961, the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., said about right-to-work laws: “In our glorious fight for civil rights, we must guard against being fooled by false slogans, such as ‘right-to-work.’ It is a law to rob us of our civil rights and job rights.”

It’s been 11 years since then-Gov. Rick Snyder (R) passed right-to-work during a lame-duck legislative session in 2012. Since then, the damage has been significant to the working class of Michigan. Union membership dropped from 17.1% of workers in 2012 to just 15.3% in 2022. Wages during that time increased just 12%, while inflation increased 29%.

In other words, right-to-work amounted to a right to starve workers as Republicans and their backers did their best to suppress labor unions.

Part of the State Senate bill attaches $2 million to educate businesses about the repeal, but more importantly, the money makes the law referendum-proof: No bill attached to spending can be overturned with a ballot initiative.

After right-to-work has been dealt with, where does the Michigan labor movement go from here? A union member at the rally in Lansing said, “We need to keep organizing, stick together, secure better contracts, form more unions, and increase union membership.”

A prevailing wage bill, HB4007, also cleared the House. “Prevailing wage” affects contracted workers on state projects. That law was repealed by the Republican legislature in 2018 and is another priority of the new Democratic-led legislature.

There is also the issue of child labor, which is rearing its ugly head all over the country. In February, the New York Times uncovered child labor in facilities that produce goods for Ford, General Motors, and General Mills in West Michigan.

Whatever the union movement chooses to do next, workers are making their voices heard and they know companies are making immense profits off of their work. As one worker put it, “Without us, the corporations we work for won’t have any profits.”

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Eric Black
Eric Black

Eric Black is a graduate of Eastern Michigan in Communications and loves his soon to be wife, their four cats, their dog Diesel, and the Detroit Pistons.