LANSING, Mich. — Michigan’s Democratic-led Legislature moved Wednesday to repeal the state’s “right-to-work” law that was passed more than a decade ago when Republicans controlled the Statehouse.
Repealing the law, which prohibits public and private unions from requiring that nonunion employees pay union dues even if the union bargains on their behalf, has been a top priority for Democrats since they took full control of the state government this year. Party leaders announced Tuesday that they planned bring the repeal to a vote in the state House on Wednesday.
The state House is also expected to vote Wednesday on restoring the state’s prevailing wage law, which requires contractors hired for state projects to pay union-level wages. The House Labor Committee advanced the bills early Wednesday along party lines.
Supporters and opponents of the bills packed the main committee room and three overflow areas. The committee allowed just over an hour of testimony, predominately from supporters of the repeal, before voting to advance the bills.
“We don’t want the government telling two private parties what they can agree to in negotiations,” said Jonathan Byrd, president of the South Central Michigan AFL-CIO. “That is what right-to-work does.”
Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer commended the committee for putting “Michigan workers first,” saying in a statement that “working people should always have basic freedoms in the workplace without interference from the government.”
House Republicans argued that the public showed its support of right-to-work when voters rejected a 2012 constitutional amendment that aimed to protect the right to organize and bargain collectively.
Republicans also complained that the bills were being rushed through and that more debate was needed.
Jim Haadsma, a Battle Creek Democrat who chairs the House Labor Committee, said the committee “had to accomplish this today so we can accomplish this by Spring break,” referring to the Legislature’s two-week break that begins March 23.
When the Legislature passed the right-to-work legislation in 2012, thousands of union supporters descended on the Capitol to protest. The law dealt a devastating blow to organized labor in a state that had played an important role in the growth of the U.S. labor movement, though unions have lost significant power in the region over the past decade.
The year before, neighboring Wisconsin under Republican Gov. Scott Walker proposed all-but ending collective bargaining for most public workers. It sent off weeks of protests that grew to as large as 100,000 people and led Democratic state senators to leave the state in a failed attempt to stop the bill’s passage.
Four years later, after he had said he wouldn’t go after union rights of private sector workers, Walker signed a right-to-work law for Wisconsin.
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