How Big Labor Plans to Fight Michigan's Right-to-Work Law

Labor unions weigh their options in the courtroom and at the ballot box.


It seemed to happen in a flash. A cradle of the U.S. labor movement became the 24th state to adopt right-to-work laws, when Republican Governor Rick Snyder of Michigan signed legislation last week banning mandatory union dues.

The unions barely had time to muster one big protest in the state capital after the Republican-controlled Legislature approved the bills last week. Today they are preparing for a long war to recover from this huge blow to their power.

Labor has two options now that its ability to extract mandatory dues from workers as a condition for employment is gone. It can fight the law or try to persuade workers to voluntarily pay up.

Union bosses aren't accustomed to the second approach, so until the next elections in 2014 they can be expected to try everything to overturn the law and to stop the right-to-work fever from spreading to neighboring states.

Legal analysts say labor's first tactic will be to obtain a court injunction to stop the law from being carried out on grounds that its exemption for public-safety workers—firefighters and police officers—violates the U.S. Constitution's equal-protection guarantees. Unions have managed to persuade a Wisconsin judge to rule against a similar law by Republican Governor Scott Walker that ended mandatory dues deductions from the paychecks of public employees. The ruling is widely expected to be overturned on appeal.

Patrick Wright, the director of legal studies at the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a free-market research group based in Michigan, says the equal-protection argument is unlikely to prevail because the alleged violations don't involve race or gender. A right-to-work law has to meet only "rational scrutiny"—not strict scrutiny—to be legally acceptable. This means the defendants—the governor and the Legislature—would merely have to offer some valid reasons, such as the law's economic upside for the state, for the law to be upheld.

Nor is a Wisconsin-style recall of Snyder and other Republican legislators likely to yield results. In Michigan, recall elections only unseat incumbents—not replace them with an opponent. That requires a separate special election, making it harder for unions to persuade voters to go along. Even if unions succeed in convincing them, the current lieutenant governor—who is an even bigger foe of labor than the governor—would replace Snyder until the special election.

So it makes more sense for unions to hold their fire and try to defeat the Republicans in 2014. Snyder, however, is a popular governor who has restored balance to the state budget while unemployment has dropped. Barring some unforeseen circumstance, he will be a formidable opponent.

In Ohio, unions managed to scrap an anti-labor law through a referendum. Under that process, all they had to do was obtain the requisite number of signatures for the law to be automatically suspended, pending a vote, which went in their favor. But this option is not available in Michigan because the new law is appended to an appropriations bill and is therefore referendum-proof.

That means unions will have to choose between an initiative or a constitutional amendment. Neither blocks the law from remaining on the books until voters go back to the polls in 2014. The initiative is the more likely route because it would require backers to gather signatures equal to only 8 percent of the votes cast in the last election to qualify for the ballot. The unions would be taking a small risk that the initiative would be overturned by a three-quarters vote of the Legislature. By contrast, a constitutional amendment would require them to gather 10 percent of the votes cast, though lawmakers couldn't touch it if it passed.

Once on the ballot, can such an initiative pass in Michigan?

The state's voters overwhelmingly defeated a measure last month that would have made it unconstitutional for Michigan to ever become a right-to-work state. The 15-point margin in that victory was what emboldened Republicans to push for right-to-work laws in the Legislature.  One poll showed that Michigan voters favored the right-to-work bills by 51 percent to 41 percent. (Even 40 percent of union households supported the law as did 63 percent of young voters.)

This gap may only widen as the law goes into effect without producing the economic Armageddon for Michigan's middle-class families that unions are predicting.

The law might even strengthen the economy, by drawing business from surrounding states where unions still have the right to collect mandatory dues. A study by the pro-right-to-work National Institute for Labor Relations recently found that 70 percent of all job growth in the last decade or so had occurred in households in right-to-work states. If that is the case, right to work will stick in Michigan and there isn't much big labor can do about it.

A version of this column originally appeared in Bloomberg View.

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  1. Neither blocks the law from remaining on the books until voters go back to the polls in 2014.

    Thats the key, right there.

    Let’s see how many people drop their union membership now that its voluntary. If not many do, then what’s the need to repeal this law?

    If a bunch do, then obviously they weren’t in the union voluntarily, and now we’re goint to pass a law to force them back in? That will be a tough sell. I seem to recall that in WI, the pubsecs ran for the door as soon as they got the chance.

    As a purely technical question, I wonder if repeal of the RTW law would mean that all those closed shop contract provisions suddenly snap back into effect, or if they have been effectively deleted from the contracts, so the union would have to “negotiate” them back in.

  2. I can understand their point of view in a way.

    I mean, if your salary and benefits the same as those negotiated by the union, and you don’t pay dues, then those who pay dues could legitimately believe that you’re freeloading off their collective bargaining.

    In fact there’s a chance that the opposite would be true. If you are an intelligent and hard working fellow with a work ethic, chances are you would be more productive than anyone in a union, and thus able to negotiate a better deal on your own.

    Seen and unseen strikes again.

    1. Ah, here is where I put my dogmatic anarcho-free enterprise-individualism aside in order to save the good from death by insistint upon the perfect.

    2. sarcasmic| 12.18.12 @ 6:30PM |#
      “I mean, if your salary and benefits the same as those negotiated by the union, and you don’t pay dues, then those who pay dues could legitimately believe that you’re freeloading off their collective bargaining.”

      Could be, but wouldn’t this open the door to negotiating individually? And there’s also nothing that says that the union-negotiated rates are simply market.

      1. Could be, but wouldn’t this open the door to negotiating individually?

        That leads to inequality, which is bad.

        1. Might suggest to some that a bit of extra effort could get you a nice raise…

          1. Might suggest to others to catch up with you in a secluded area and ensure you understand it’s not to your advantage to work too hard…make others look bad and such. We all gettin’ paid the same, so…

            Which is exactly what happens.

            s/ 20+ Years Working In a Union Shop

            1. Almanian.| 12.18.12 @ 7:12PM |#
              “Which is exactly what happens…”

              I have no doubt, but that is a ‘cultural’ issue and once the shop steward no longer calls the tune, I’m guessing it would change.
              It’s near Christmas. One year I got a nice bonus courtesy of a procedural change I developed; nice trip for GF and I at the time.
              It won’t change today, but once word gets out about possible bonuses, well….

            2. It’s kind of like that in a lot of bureaucracies, union or not, government or not. I was an underwriter at a non-union private company, and my coworkers got pissed that I got all my work done and had a spanking clean desk.

              One of them plopped a pile of random files on my desk, and told me to keep the desk cluttered so the rest of them didn’t look as bad.

              1. And then I basically got sort of not quite fired via getting a raise to a position where I had nothing to do all day because I made the company too much money at my old job.

                It was kind of surreal.

                1. protefeed| 12.18.12 @ 9:11PM |#
                  “And then I basically got sort of not quite fired via getting a raise to a position where I had nothing to do all day because I made the company too much money at my old job.”

                  ‘Splain, please? Who ‘not quite fired’ you for ‘making too much money’?
                  I want to invest in the competition.

                2. My wife was fired from an accounting job last year. About a week after she uncovered $50k in fraud, she was let go for “working through her lunch period without written approval.” Verbal approval was apparently not enough for such an awful transgression.

                  1. MS,
                    Which company did so? The management is obviously a disaster and someone can make some bucks betting on the competition.

                    1. Cydcor. Her division contracts for AT&T to run the field agents out selling bundled internet/phone/tv packages.

                    2. MS,
                      To be honest, I’d never heard of it before, but that’s no great surprise. Ordering a Christmas present for wife earlier this week, the gal answered with some company name I’d never heard of and was obviously embarrassed admitting she was a contractor to the seller.
                      I’ll certainly see who the competitors are; thanks much.

    3. Unionism IS collective freeloading by means and virtue of extortion, so it’s fucked up to indict the guy who had nothing to do with it (or the guy who had no choice, like railroad workers).

    4. In my experience, unions are unattractive to intelligent and hard working fellows.

      The lazy and incompetent are attracted by the “floor” of compensation promised by the union. The intelligent and hard working recognize and are repelled by the implicit “ceiling”.

      If your identity is built upon being a Worker, you certainly aren’t putting yourself on a track to become part of the evil Management.

      1. Right. The union holds everyone at the same level of salary and benefits, and makes all employees beholden to the union’s seniority processes for advancement.

        That’s great for people who don’t want to work too hard or get ahead. It sucks if you do.

    5. There;s no requirement that the union or the employer extend the same terms to non-union employees.

      Unions CHOOSE to require the employer extend the terms so that they have an excuse to make everyone join the union.

  3. I cannot begin to describe my joy at the angst of Michigan unions regarding this matter. They overplayed their collective hand (see what I did there?!) and got the shit slapped out of them.

    They won’t be smart enough to go lick their wounds and try to get a subsequent legislature to undo the law. The politicking and battles will be epic entertainment for some time to come.

    Couldn’t have happened to a nicer group of people. Hoist on their own petard, they are. HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA!

    1. ^^This^^ I’d much rather have individuals freeloading off big labor than big labor freeloading off individuals.

      1. I view the so-called “freeloading” off unions as payback for allllll the years that unions prevented the really good employees from getting more than the really shitty employees.

        Now those empls can get some of that back, 2 hours of wages a month at a time (in the case of our empl union).

        1. Maybe the small employers. Both sides of the big automakers have been freeloading for years. The executives and union bosses play the same country clubs and send their kids to the same private schools. They pretend to fight – while screwing their shareholders and remaining customers – then they have drinks and celebrate.

  4. BO replaces Scalia and Kennedy during the next four years, and SCOTUS decides by a 6-3 margin that RTW violates the 9th amendment freedom to effectively collectively bargain.

    1. You know, a few years ago I’d have said you were nuts.

      Now? I believe you may be right. SCOTUS was never entirely reliable (see “Wickard” and others, of course), buts it’s becoming even scarier and more erratic of late (see “penaltax”).

      1. I forgot to add that Reason would respond to the decision with a blog post about how Romney would have done it too.

        1. Well he probably would have.

          Who appointed Roberts?

  5. Right to work laws are obviously not a libertarian solution, but as we don’t have a free market, that’s not the issue.
    Popular support for RTW shows that citizens are realizing that labor regulation hurts them as consumers and as workers.
    RTW creates an opportunity to examine problems with labor regulation .

    1. “RTW creates an opportunity to examine problems with labor regulation.”

      And while is certainly does not represent a freed market, it move the needle far closer to ‘free’ than the alternative.

  6. Dude seems to know what he is talking about over there. Wow.

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  8. This is like a non issue for like, 98% of the economy. I live near LA and the OC, where the economy is proudly ran by immigrants, and there’s not a union in sight. A sushi joint can’t pay union members 5 dollars an hour under the table like they can with an international Asian student who’s applying to UCLA or UCI.

    Unfortunately, undocumented aliens will be unionized here soon, and at that point, the CA is even more screwed.

  9. Legal analysts say labor’s first tactic will be to obtain a court injunction to stop the law from being carried out on grounds that its exemption for public-safety workers?firefighters and police officers?violates the U.S. Constitution’s equal-protection guarantees

    I agree. The exceptions should be struck down and they shouldn’t be forced to join unions, either.

  10. Oh god, “Big Labor”. Yeah, because they’re just like Big Tobacco and Big Oil.

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