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Michigan is set to repeal its decade-old right-to-work law, a big win for unions

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

In a dramatic turnabout, it appears Michigan is about to repeal its so-called right-to-work law. The state legislature approved that repeal this week. It's a big win for unions in a state that is considered a cradle of the labor movement. We have more from Michigan Public Radio's Rick Pluta.

RICK PLUTA, BYLINE: Michigan has a storied union history, including battles to organize auto plants, going back to the 1930s. And then, labor became a powerful political force in the state. So it was a gut punch to labor when the Republican-led state legislature in 2012 voted to make Michigan a right-to-work state, and it was quickly signed by a Republican governor. So union activists were thrilled...

(CHEERING)

PLUTA: ...As they witnessed a legislature, controlled now by Democrats, voting to repeal Michigan's right-to-work law and sending it to Governor Gretchen Whitmer. The Democratic governor has made scrapping the law a priority.

RON BIEBER: It's huge.

PLUTA: Michigan AFL-CIO President Ron Bieber says this is a day he's been waiting for and working toward for over a decade.

BIEBER: It's huge for the entire labor movement, nationally, to have a victory for working people and make progress for a change.

PLUTA: Right-to-work laws allow workers in a union shop to opt out of paying union dues. Unions often call that the, quote, "right to freeload" because those workers can get many of the benefits of union membership without actually belonging to the union. This is the first time in nearly six decades that a state legislature has voted to repeal a right-to-work law.

Republican State Senator Thomas Albert says repealing right to work is a mistake. He says it should be up to workers to decide whether they want to be part of a union and also that it will be bad for business.

THOMAS ALBERT: Businesses that are already here aren't going to want to grow. And businesses that are looking to develop and find a good place to work and establish some roots - they're going to go somewhere else.

PLUTA: That's a false choice, says Democratic State Representative Regina Weiss, who sponsored one of the right-to-work repeal bills.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

REGINA WEISS: You don't have to choose to support business and then also choose to screw over workers. You can support business. You can support workers at the same time. And supporting workers actually also helps support investments into our economy.

PLUTA: The bigger danger is uncertainty, says Sandy Baruah. He's the president of the Detroit Regional Chamber. It's a business group, but one of its stated missions is promoting harmonious union-management relationships. He says businesses consider right to work to be a net gain, but the state needs to be consistent.

SANDY BARUAH: Consistency, in itself, is hugely important.

PLUTA: But Baruah says Michigan isn't consistent, and fostering more stability in taxes and other costs, for example, would help counter the effects of repealing right to work.

BARUAH: We change from governor to governor, sometimes even within a governor's period of time that he or she is in office.

PLUTA: Baruah says shifting with the political winds puts Michigan at a disadvantage against red states, like Texas, Tennessee and South Carolina, and higher-tax blue states, like Massachusetts. Michigan Democrats' legislative majorities are very, very thin - one vote apiece in the House and the Senate. Control could easily shift in the future. Also, some right-to-work advocates are considering a ballot drive to reverse what the legislature just did and ask voters to put a right-to-work amendment in the Michigan Constitution.

For NPR News, I'm Rick Pluta in Lansing, Mich.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Rick Pluta
Rick Pluta is Senior Capitol Correspondent for the Michigan Public Radio Network. He has been covering Michigan’s Capitol, government, and politics since 1987. His journalism background includes stints with UPI, The Elizabeth (NJ) Daily Journal, The (Pontiac, MI) Oakland Press, and WJR. He is also a lifelong public radio listener.