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Right-to-work law: Tensions rise in latest labor battle in Michigan

December 10, 2012|By Alana Semuels
  • Hundreds of chanting and cheering protesters streamed back into the Michigan Capitol after receiving a court order saying that the building must reopen.
Hundreds of chanting and cheering protesters streamed back into the Michigan… (AP Photo/Carlos Osorio )

NEW YORK -- Unions may be agitating more in some areas of the country, but in Michigan, they’re on the crux of losing a big battle with the state’s Republican Legislature and governor that could cause “endless strife” in the state, according to Democrats such as Congressman John Dingell.

At issue is a right-to-work law passed in the legislature last week, which would allow people to join unions without being required to pay dues. Union advocates say it encourages free-ridership in which people benefit from unions but do not support them financially; conservatives call it a way to give employees more freedom.

Protesters filled Michigan’s capitol Monday as a congressional delegation of some of the state’s most prominent leaders met with Republican Gov. Rick Snyder to ask him to veto the bill.

“This is incredibly divisive – we’re hearing from people around the country asking what in the world is going on in Michigan?” said Sen. Debbie Stabenow, on a conference call. “This is about whether we’re going to have good wages, and a good standard of living in Michigan,” she said.

It’s difficult to determine just how right-to-work laws affect a state’s economy – liberals and conservatives put forth their own studies showing it either cripples a state’s economy or boosts it. Conservatives say the 23 states with right-to-work laws have less labor unrest and stronger businesses than those without. Liberals say the economies in states with right-to-work laws, including Nevada, have higher unemployment and lower wages.

Either way, it’s surprising to most that this law would pass so easily in Michigan, once a union stronghold where the United Autoworkers were a powerful force. Labor groups in the state had tried to pass a constitutional amendment prohibiting such laws in the November election, but were defeated 57% to 43%.

But Michigan, like other states such as Wisconsin, Indiana and Ohio that have passed anti-labor laws in recent years, has a Republican-controlled legislature, which just shows that the effects of the 2010 election, in which the tea party was swept into office, still resonate, said Paul Secunda, a professor of labor law at Marquette University in Wisconsin.

“This is an extention of the polarization that we see in the political world,” he said. “Where you have Republicans in control of state government without any meaningful opposition, the Koch brothers and others who want to see unions dismantled and destroyed for political reasons are able to do so.”

President Obama has largely stayed out of local labor issues, and Democrats aren’t always a help, Secunda said. One of the largest labor strikes this year was in Chicago, where Obama’s former chief-of-staff, Rahm Emanuel, battled teacher’s unions.

Democratic members of the congressional delegation have urged Snyder to have a cooling-off period before he signs the legislation, as protests continue at his house and at the statehouse. Sen. Carl Levin,  and Congressmen John Dingell, John Conyers, Sandy Levin, Gary Peters and others urged him to put the right-to-work bill to a public vote before approving it. The governor has said he would listen “seriously” to their concerns, according to the conference call.

“People are going to be bitter about the sneaking, dishonest way in which this was handled,” said Congressman John Dingell. “There’s a real peril here of endless controversy and strife.”

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