Michigan: Movements spur legislative victories

The scene at the Michigan Capitol in Lansing March 14 was reminiscent of mass protests there in December 2012. At that time union members packed the State House to pressure then-Governor Rick Snyder not to sign a bill making Michigan a “right-to-work” state. But Snyder broke his campaign promise not to sign, making Michigan the 27th state with the union-busting law on the books.

Michigan union members pack State House to demand state Senate repeals “Right-to-Work,” March 16, 2023.

While a union in a workplace is legally required to represent members and nonmembers alike, in a right-to-work state the union cannot negotiate a contract that makes union dues or service fees mandatory. This weakens unions and lowers the average wage in what have for decades been nicknamed “right-to-work-for-less” states.

This time the union workers crowding the halls were the winners. The Michigan Senate passed a bill to repeal right-to-work. The bill also restores the requirement that businesses pay the prevailing wage on state projects. The pro-union bill previously passed in the Michigan House, and Governor Gretchen Whitmer is expected to sign it.

In November, for the first time in 40 years, Democrats regained control of the Michigan House and Senate and retained the governor’s seat. While this was a factor in the pro-worker bill passing, it is actually unusual for a state to overturn right-to-work once it passes. Many states have had these laws — often instituted during the era of Jim Crow segregation in the South — on the books for decades, regardless of which party was in control.

Compared to Southern states, Michigan has high union density — 14% of workers belong to unions vs. 10% countrywide. Two major unions, the United Auto Workers and the Teamsters, are headquartered in Detroit. Politicians are more likely to be influenced by union pressure.

Nevertheless, Michigan unions should not take for granted that the Democrats will support their issues. Demonstrating in Lansing was a good move.

Movement pressure was also a factor in other progressive acts by the Michigan legislature. The repeal of a 1931 abortion ban came after a successful mass, grassroots effort in November to pass a ballot initiative enshrining reproductive rights. This month the Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act of 1976 was amended to include sexual orientation, gender identity and gender expression — something the LGBTQ+ movement has been pushing for years.

Neither labor rights nor civil rights will be won solely by relying on Democratic Party politicians. To quote a song from the Civil Rights Movement, “Freedom is a constant struggle.”

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