The latest showdown pits state workers against Republican Gov. Rick Snyder, who seeks to extend existing right-to-work legislation.
The battle over Michigan’s right-to-work laws rages on as the state’s 629,000 union workers continue the fight to repeal legislation they believe undermines collective bargaining rights. The Lansing State Journal reports that the latest showdown pits 36,000 state workers against Republican Gov. Rick Snyder, who seeks to extend existing right-to-work legislation to state civil service employees.
The problem, unions representatives say, is that the law clearly indicates that state workers are exempt, meaning that Snyder could be overreaching and misapplying the law that he helped champion late last year. Union representatives are confident that the Civil Service Commission will side with them ahead of contract negotiations later this summer.
Overextending right to work
“What I can tell you is Michigan became the 24th right-to-work state recently. The law does not apply to state employees. Under our state constitution we fall under the authority of the state Civil Service Commission. We bargain our contract with the governor,” said Ray Holman, legislative liaison for United Auto Workers Local 6000, to Mint Press News.
UAW Local 6000 represents more than 17,400 state employees, the largest state employee union in Michigan and the fourth-largest contract in the UAW.
Michigan’s right-to-work law was passed in December of last year, limiting the collective bargaining power of organized labor by allowing workers in unionized industries to opt out of paying union dues. The law’s passage drew immediate, widespread protests by some 10,000-13,000 union workers who demonstrated in Lansing, the state capital. USA Today reported that it was the largest demonstration ever to occur at the capitol building.
National media was preoccupied with a few scuffles and a handful of arrests, but the demonstration was mostly peaceful. Boisterous workers shouted “Hey, hey! Ho, ho! Right-to-work has got to go!” in the capitol.
Since the protests, the legislation has gone on to face legal challenges. In February, private-sector unions filed a lawsuit challenging the legality of the law.
Among the leading unions pushing the lawsuit are the Michigan AFL-CIO, the Building and Trades Council, the Teamsters, SEIU, United Farm Workers and the United Food and Commercial Workers. All claim that Michigan’s right-to-work law doesn’t affect private-sector employees because unions are protected under federal law and governed by the National Labor Relations Board, not state law.
“In their haste to enact right-to-work, the Legislature overreached,” said Andrew Nickelhoff, general counsel for the Michigan AFL-CIO, to the Detroit Free Press.
Civil service employees now make the same claim.
“It’s pretty clear that it does not apply to us,” said Holman. “Three of the 4 members of the Civil Service Commission have said they do not plan on upholding it.”
Why then, would Gov. Snyder insist on misapplying this law? It likely boils down to a game of politics pitting a business-backed Republican against the rights of workers.
“I personally don’t think that it applies to us, but they may feel the need to make a statement, to make people happy on the right side of the aisle. When the governor was elected, he actually had the reputation of resisting right to work,” Holman said.
The challenge of overturning right-to-work
Overturning the law, an increasingly popular option, may prove difficult if not impossible over the next few years. Republicans currently hold majorities in all three branches of state government.
“It [right-to-work] got passed in the middle of the night of a lame-duck session. There are some big money players who lobbied the Governor and the legislature to ram it through during the lame-duck session,” Holman said.
Little has changed, as the state Senate is comprised of 26 Republicans and 12 Democrats. Similarly, the House has 59 Republicans and 51 Democrats. Republicans also hold a 5-2 edge in the state Supreme Court.
“It’s hard for Democrats to stop anything,” Holman said. “Democrats would have to regain majorities in all three branches in 2014 to change anything.”
Anticipating the blowback from unions, Michigan Republicans even changed state laws during the same lame-duck session, making it more difficult for voters to launch a recall campaign like the one seen in Wisconsin last year. Petitions requiring 25 percent of eligible voters’ signatures now have to be filed in 60 days, rather than in 90 days.
The law follows mass union protests in Wisconsin that led to a failed recall election in June 2012 after Republican Gov. Scott Walker signed a similar right-to-work bill into law. Walker received 53.1 percent of the vote, while Democratic challenger Tom Barrett pulled in 46.3 percent.
Like in Michigan, Wisconsin’s Act 10 has not gone unchallenged. Wisconsin Public Radio reports that the Madison teachers union and a Milwaukee city employees union filed a lawsuit last month challenging Wisconsin’s new labor laws. In the case, Madison Teachers Inc. v. Scott Walker, the state Supreme Court will decide whether the law slashing collective bargaining rights for public workers violates the equal protection and association rights of municipal employees.
Workers in Michigan may face a tougher battle. The state’s right-to-work law cuts deeper than Wisconsin’s version.
“The Michigan legislation goes much further than proposals advanced last year by Republican governors in Wisconsin and Ohio, which targeted public employees,” writes John Nichols of The Nation. “Under the Michigan legislation, basic labor rights are stripped away from both public and private-sector workers.”
What is similar is the immediate drop in wages that workers in right-to-work states will experience. According to the Economic Policy Institute, a nonpartisan, progressive think tank based in Washington, D.C., employees in right-to-work states, whether union or non-union, are paid on average $1,500 per year less than in states with laws friendlier to organized labor. The institute’s research also shows that right-to-work laws also “decrease the likelihood employees will get health insurance or pensions through their jobs.”
The battles in Wisconsin and Michigan are not unique. Unions beset by hostile state legislatures and big business interests have been forced to spend millions fighting for the ability to collectively bargain, a right upheld by federal laws including the National Labor Relations Act of 1935.
The Associated Press reports that unions spent $24 million to overturn an anti-union measure in Ohio in November 2011, as well as $20 million in the failed effort to recall Wisconsin’s Gov. Walker in 2012.
“Clearly, this is a strategy by the ultraconservatives to make us spend our resources, but we have no choice,” Lee Saunders, president of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, the nation’s largest public employees union, told the AP.