Lansing — As Michigan’s lawmakers prepare to pass right-to-work legislation tomorrow, the capital city of Lansing is on edge. This Monday night, it’s quiet, cloudy and cold. Tomorrow, there will be chaos.
At the statehouse, the police presence is overwhelming. The official spokesman wouldn’t give me a number — he said it would compromise his tactical advantage — but confirmed state troopers are reporting to Lansing from all across Michigan. The officers are in a cheerful mood today, lingering in the capitol’s halls, teasing each other and flirting with passersby. But their attire and equipment suggests that the situation could get serious, and fast. Some wear full vests; many carry batons. Officers say they’re hoping for peaceful protests, but they’re also prepared to use tear gas if needed.
Meanwhile, at the capital’s union offices, a huge organization effort is underway. It’s estimated thousands of demonstrators will turn out to protest tomorrow. Union teams have traded phone shifts, rallying supporters from across the state and the nation. Meanwhile, organizers have stockpiled posters and appointed “marshals” to ensure good behavior on their march in Lansing tomorrow. And in Detroit, the United Auto Workers held a weekend seminar on civil disobedience in preparation for Tuesday.
The three-bill right-to-work package is controversial — not only for its contents, but also for the breakneck pace at which it advanced. Introduced last Thursday, the legislation would prohibit compulsory union membership, dues, or fees. Both the Michigan house and senate have been delayed from final acceptance only by a procedural requirement; the legislation had enough support to be finalized last week, and Governor Rick Snyder has already committed to signing the bill.
Unions are furious because right-to-work laws will cost them money and members. In 2010, the Heritage Foundation estimated that union coffers would lose $46.5 million a year if Michigan adopted right-to-work legislation. Similar laws in other states resulted in double-digit percentage drops in union rosters. And there’s also the symbolic significance — Michigan has long been a union stronghold.
Michigan’s unions have only themselves to blame, though. The governor had initially told Republican lawmakers to hold back on the right-to-work legislation because “it would be a divisive issue, and it’s not something we should debate,” says Representative Jase Bolger, speaker of the Michigan House. He adds that he initially backed off out of respect for Snyder.
But when unions introduced a ballot measure this year seeking to prohibit right-to-work laws in the state constitution, “they removed the argument that the debate would be divisive because they forced the argument upon us,” Bolger says.
And it turned out Big Labor overplayed its hand. On Election Day, 58 percent of voters turned down the unions’ Proposition 2. Meanwhile, Republicans had a chance to frame the right-to-work debate throughout the campaign season. They publicly defined the issue by pushing this neat aphorism: Right-to-work laws create a situation where unions are as free to make their case as workers are to make their choice.
Proposition 2 was not the only catalyst of the new legislation, though. On February 1, 2012, neighboring Indiana became a right-to-work state. The economic benefit was immediate: In a single year, Indiana moved up 18 rankings on the Pollina Corp.’s Top Pro-Business States List, becoming fifth-best in the nation. Governor Snyder has noted that around 90 companies have decided to move to the Hoosier State after it became right-to-work.
The policy has given Indiana a competitive edge over its neighbors, says Jim Holcomb, senior vice president of the Michigan Chamber of Commerce. “Many of our members told us they are routinely solicited by freedom-to-work states like Indiana,” he told me today. “Certainly Indiana being a freedom-to-work state has made a lot of Michigan policymakers look at this and ask, ‘How do we ensure our state is economically competitive?’”
Regardless of the economic benefit, Big Labor is making a stink about how the law will be passed in Michigan. Republicans lost five house seats in the November election. Though they maintained their majority, unions and their Democrat allies have complained that right-to-work legislation is being enacted in a lame-duck session. Furthermore, Republicans added, as a procedural matter, a $1 million appropriation for enforcement of the right-to-work law, protecting the legislation from ballot referendum.
But Republican leaders say this policy is their responsibility to their constituents. “It’s our job to go to work every day as long as we’re in [office] to get the work done on behalf of the people,” Bolger says. “It’s been clear the unions and the Democrats are focused on the politics of this issue. They’re focused on their own interest. But we’re focused on the worker’s interests.”
Proponents add that this idea is not new. State representative Mike Shirkey, a Republican from Jackson, Mich., has been an especially fervent leader, calling right-to-work legislation his top priority for the past two years.
And Michigan’s right-to-work conversion is sure to have national implications, says Phillip Wilson, the president of the Labor Relations Institute. Manufacturers want to build their presence in the Midwest because of its central geographical location, but “Rust Belt states have a bad reputation for labor unrest and for unions just in general being a bigger problem for companies.” However, as Indiana shows, if one state adopts right-to-work rules, that puts greater pressure on its neighbors.
And contrary to the Big Labor line, Michigan’s workers will only gain from the legislation, Wilson adds.
The controversy represents “the disconnect between institutional union leadership, which are interested in preserving dues income and their political power, with the rank-and-file union worker, who is concerned with, ‘Is my union representing my interests, and is my money that I’m giving them being spent wisely,’” Wilson says. “That’s what right-to-work is really all about. It makes dues sort of a market-driven component. You will pay for the representation when you think it’s worth it.”