Michigan Senate Approves Repeal of Right-To-Work Law, Return of Prevailing Wage
Organized labor was on the verge of scoring landmark political victories Tuesday as the Michigan Senate voted to repeal the 2012 right-to-work law that made union membership optional at unionized workplaces and re-establish a prevailing wage standard for state projects.
The proposals passed along party lines 20-17, marking a turning point in Michigan politics, as Democrats, who won majorities last fall in the House and Senate for the first time in 40 years, begin unraveling policies that Republicans considered among their top achievements in the past decade.
State Sen. Darrin Camilleri, D-Trenton, said the votes demonstrated Michigan is “restoring the union promise” and taking a step toward a new era of governance.
"Today, we are showing the world that Michigan is not only where we make things and build things, it’s where the people who do so are respected," Camilleri said.
But Republican lawmakers blasted the bills, arguing they would damage the state's ability to compete for jobs, would take a choice away from workers and would financially benefit labor groups that help finance Democrats' campaigns. The right-to-work law makes paying dues or agency fees to a union optional.
“This isn’t about policy," said Sen. Thomas Albert, R-Lowell. "It’s about politics. This is basically a political fundraiser being launched at the state Capitol.”
A similar package of three bills passed the House last week. The Senate switched two of the House-approved bills out for proposals that originated in the Senate, meaning they will have to go back to the House before reaching Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer's desk.
Union supporters had a heavy presence at the Capitol Tuesday, with people filling three meeting rooms for a committee hearing Tuesday morning and then packing the Senate's gallery for the votes Tuesday afternoon. There was applause in the Senate chamber and in the halls of the Capitol after the first vote on repealing right-to-work.
Labor leaders contended the past moves of Michigan Republicans eroded the ability of unions to collectively bargain for workers and cut into wages.
“It is a power grab, pure and simple," Ron Bieber, president of the Michigan AFL-CIO, told the Senate Labor Committee.
The right-to-work law, enacted a decade ago by former Gov. Rick Snyder, a Republican, prohibited requirements that workers pay union dues or fees as a condition of their employment.
In December 2012, thousands of protesters showed up at the state Capitol as Republicans advanced bills to institute right-to-work. Snyder signed them on Dec. 11. At the time, he said, "Workers deserve the right to decide for themselves whether union membership benefits them."
The 2012 demonstrations, which gained national media attention, loomed over the Senate's votes. Camilleri said some of the same protesters who came to Lansing to speak against right-to-work in 2012 were there Tuesday to celebrate the repeal votes.
Senate Majority Leader Winnie Brinks, D-Grand Rapids, recalled being in Lansing in December 2012. She said thousands of workers' voices were ignored when Republicans controlled the Legislature with no committee hearing and a "swing of the gavel."
"The failed experiment of gutting Michigan workers' rights is soon to be over," Brinks said.
Since 2012, the number of union members in Michigan has fallen from 629,000 to 589,000 in 2022, according to data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
The new bills specifically allow employers to enter into an agreement "that requires all employees in the bargaining unit to share fairly in the financial support of the labor organization."
Business groups, including the Michigan Chamber of Commerce, spoke out against repealing right-to-work. Currently, 26 other states have right-to-work policies in place, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
“We oppose turning back the clock on this law,” said Wendy Block, senior vice president of business advocacy and member engagement at the Michigan Chamber of Commerce.
Forcing people to join unions turned workers into "indentured servants," said Sen. Jonathan Lindsey, R-Allen.