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'All-out war in Michigan': A guide to the bruising right-to-work fight
Republicans in one of America's most pro-union states are about to strike a big blow against organized labor
Union workers protest outside the Capitol in Lansing, Mich., on Dec. 6.
Union workers protest outside the Capitol in Lansing, Mich., on Dec. 6. AP Photo/Carlos Osorio
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he ongoing showdown in Wisconsin between organized labor and state Republicans has been brutal for unions, and Badger State civility. But what's happening in Michigan is "far worse," says Rich Yeselson at The American Prospect. Last Thursday, the GOP-dominated state House and Senate, meeting in a special lame-duck session, pushed through controversial "right to work" bills; after a mandatory five-day waiting period, each chamber will pass the other's bill on Tuesday, and Gov. Rick Snyder (R) says he will sign it. This all happened quite suddenly, surprising unions, Democrats, and outside observers — not least because until Thursday, Snyder said he didn't want such a law.

So, what is a "right-to-work" law? The first thing to know: "The name is misleading," says Jeff Karoub of The Associated Press. "It isn't about a right to work but rather a right for workers to choose whether they want to join a union or pay fees similar to union dues." In Michigan, if you're employed in a unionized workplace and you choose not to join, unions have the right to collect a fee for their work negotiating your wage and benefits. In the Michigan version of the law, police and firefighter unions are exempt. Currently, 23 states have right-to-work laws; Michigan would be No. 24.

Democrats don't have enough votes to stop the push, but they are not giving up. President Obama, visiting a Daimler plant outside of Detroit on Monday, criticized the GOP campaign, saying "these so-called right-to-work laws" are really about "giving you the right to work for less money." Unions are planning a massive rally at the state Capitol on Tuesday. And the top Democrats in Michigan's federal delegation warned Snyder that if he turns the birthplace of the United Auto Workers into a right-to-work state, he'll be "consigning the state to years of discord and division," says Greg Sargent at The Washington Post. We're talking "all-out war in Michigan."

Everyone agrees that right-to-work laws weaken unions. The main difference in opinion is whether that's a good thing. Supporters of the laws argue that giving workers a choice over union membership boosts freedom and fairness, and that right-to-work states attract more business and jobs. "As capital becomes ever more moveable," says Tom Rogan at The Week, "jobs will increasingly flow to the place of best returns — states where companies can achieve lower costs, increased productivity, and greater profits." Opponents also cite fairness, arguing that unions deliver tangible benefits to all workers and that right-to-work laws just open the door to free riders. And that's the point, say Democrats and labor groups: "It's a snarling pit bull of a policy that disempowers the institutional voice of employees — unions — for the benefit of corporations" and their GOP allies, says The American Prospect's Yeselson. This is about naked politics, not economics.

Both sides also recognize the importance — both symbolic and structural — of this fight in Michigan. The Wolverine State has one of the highest union membership rates in the country — 17.5 percent — and has a strong history of supporting organized labor, dating back to the creation of the storied United Auto Workers union in the 1930s. "If Michigan, of all places, is no longer safe from a sweeping revisions to its labor laws," says Brad Plummer at The Washington Post, "then none of the remaining pro-union states in the Midwest and Northeast are immune." 

In the long fight over right-to-work laws — allowed under section 14-B of the 1947 Taft Hartley Act — Michigan's sudden flip "really does seem like the tipping point," says Matthew Yglesias at Slate. If you look at a map of right-to-work states, they are all in the South and Mountain West, areas where labor was never strong. The basic compact was that "Democrats in states like Virginia and Nevada didn't seriously try to repeal right-to-work laws, while Republicans in the Northeast and Midwest didn't try to implement them." Then Indiana reinstated its long-abandoned right-to-work laws earlier this year, and after this defeat in Michigan, "why shouldn't Republicans press for it in Wisconsin or Ohio or Pennsylvania?"

Is there any way Democrats and unions can undo the law? The short answer is probably not, at least not anytime soon. GOP "legislators cleverly attached the legislation to an appropriations bill so that it could not be overturned in referendum," as happened in Ohio last year with a different anti-union law, says Alec MacGillis at The New Republic. And even in an election where Obama beat Mitt Romney by 10 percentage points and 450,000 votes, notes David Weigel at Slate, Republicans still kept control of the state legislature, albeit with a slightly smaller majority. How? Gerrymandering. The 2010 Tea Party wave swept in a GOP legislature that then redrew districts to their favor, and "it was the same in other Midwestern/rust belt states controlled by Republicans." Democrats have at least eight more years of impotently watching Republicans push through their "dream legislation."

Sources: The American Prospect, The Associated Press, The New Republic, National Review, Slate (2), The Washington Free Beacon, The Washington Post (2,3), The Week

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