DemDaily: The Fight Over Right To Work

March 27, 2023

Michigan, on Friday, became the first state in nearly 60 years to repeal its "right-to-work" law, instituted in the Great Lakes State over a decade ago to restrict the power of unions in the workplace.

In signing the "Restoring Workers’ Rights" bill into law, Governor Gretchen Whitmer (D) said, “Today, we are coming together to restore workers’ rights, protect Michiganders on the job, and grow Michigan’s middle class. Michigan workers are the most talented and hard-working in the world and deserve to be treated with dignity and respect."

She also reinstated a prevailing wage law that requires union-level wages and benefits for state-funded construction projects.

Right-to-Work (Less): Paradoxically, "right-to-work" laws are anti-labor laws that do not "protect" workers' wages, benefits or provide general guarantee of employment. In fact, seven of the top 10 states with the highest unemployment rates have right-to-work laws on the books.

Right-to-work laws are actually a state government ban on contractual agreements between employers and employees that require workers, regardless of whether or not they belong to the union, to pay for their fair-share cost of union representation in bargaining for benefits for all employees.

Under federal law -- the Labor Management Relations Act of 1947, also known as the Taft-Hartley Act -- "closed shops," which mandated union membership as a condition of employment, were prohibited.

Alternatively, it allowed for "agency shops," where employees pay a fee for the cost of collective bargaining but need not formally join the union.

Taft-Hartley, introduced in the aftermath of a major strike wave in 1945 and 1946, imposed a series of unprecedented restrictions on union activity while opening up the ability of states to pass their own laws.

Under subsequent state right-to-work laws, employees could opt out of paying any fair share payment for bargaining representation by the union.

The majority of these state laws were passed in the 1940s and 1950s, but a more recent push by conservative legislators has resulted in five more RTW states over the last two decades.

26 states now have right-to-work laws, similar constitutional amendments or both. 21 of those states voted to put Donald Trump into office in 2020.

Michigan, a longstanding labor stronghold, is among the most crucial of presidential battleground states, having voted for Joe Biden 50.6%-47.8% in 2020. The GOP, however, had controlled both chambers of the legislature since 2011, when they enacted their RTW legislation.

In one of the most consequential victories of the 2022 midterms, Michigan Democrats secured a trifecta for the first time since 1983, reelecting Whitmer and flipping control of both houses.

Michigan's law comes at a time when the labor movement, which boasts just 10.1% of the population, is experiencing a resurgence in organizing and striking at levels not seen for decades. According to an August 2022 Gallup poll, unions are at their highest public popularity since 1965 -- with a 71% approval rating.

In December, the Democratically controlled Illinois state legislature passed the "Workers’ Rights Amendment" to its state constitution, enshrining the right to unionize and prohibiting future right-to-work laws.

Assaults on the labor movement, however, continue on multiple fronts, with some of the greatest blows coming from wars waged in the courts.

Many of the well-funded legal battles are supported by organizations like the National Right to Work Committee (NRWC), which, along with its grassroots arm, is dedicated to eliminating "coercive union power."

In 2018, the Supreme Court of the United States' conservative majority ruled in Janus v. AFSCME that requiring a public-sector employee to join or pay "agency" fees to a union for the cost of collective bargaining violated that employee's First Amendment right to free speech.

In January 2023, SCOTUS heard oral arguments in Glacier Northwest v. The International Brotherhood of Teamsters, a case that threatens the protections under the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) of unions that choose to strike against their employers. The decision in Glacier is not expected before the close of the court's term this summer.

DemList will keep you informed.

DemDaily: On Strike! 3/21/23
DemDaily: Biden's New Labor Secretary 3/2/23
DemDaily: The Right to Strike 1/12/23
DemDaily: Strike Derailed 12/2/22
DemDaily: A New Era at The AFL-CIO 7/5/22

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Kimberly Scott

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Sources: Michigan Governor's Office, Detroit Free Press, FiveThirtyEight, Bureau of Labor Statistics, NBC Chicago, AP

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