Democrats in Washtenaw County condemn Republicans for fast-tracking right-to-work legislation
Thursday's passage of right-to-work legislation by Republicans in the Michigan House and Senate is stirring up strong emotions in Washtenaw County.
State Rep. David Rutledge, D-Superior Township, expressed his frustrations shortly after the first bill made it through the House in a 58-52 vote.
"This bill is nothing more than an attempt to erode workers' rights," he said. "At the 11th hour of the legislative session, in the final days of the 2011-2012 term when we should be focusing on moving our state forward, this plan is about Republican leadership retaliating against their political adversaries."
In other words, it would be illegal to require financial support of a union as a condition of employment.
Snyder and Republican leaders argue workers should have the choice whether to financially support a union.
But Democrats see it as an attack on the middle class and a case of political payback after Michigan labor groups coalesced around Proposal 2 on the state's ballot last month.
Snyder's decision to put right-to-work on his agenda in the lame duck session marked a change of course from his previously stated position.
When asked by AnnArbor.com in October if right-to-work was on his agenda, Snyder responded: "I've been very consistent that I didn't want right-to-work on the table. It's a divisive issue. So I think I've done a very good job for the last couple years of making right-to-work a non-issue."
Snyder has pointed the finger at labor unions, saying they made right-to-work an issue with Proposal 2, which would have enshrined collective bargaining rights in the state's constitution. The measure failed with 57 percent of Michigan voters casting ballots against it on Nov. 6.
And now right-to-work is on a fast track to becoming the law of the land in Michigan, considered the birthplace of the American organized labor movement.
State Rep. Jeff Irwin, D-Ann Arbor, said he found it disheartening to see Republicans playing up such a divisive issue during the lame-duck session when major issues are jammed through under a time crunch, rather than thoroughly discussed. He cited statistics that show employees in right-to-work states make 3.2 percent less than workers in free-bargaining states, or about $1,500 less per year.
"They are also less likely to have health care or pension benefits," he wrote in an email on Thursday afternoon. "In an economy that is driven primarily by spending, reducing workers' discretionary income could actually result in job losses because consumer demand decreases."
Republicans, however, said the bills are not anti-union. Snyder and legislative leaders denied opponents' contention that the bills were designed to weaken unions by depriving them of funds needed to bargain effectively or were retaliation for the ballot initiative, which organized labor spearheaded. They said a "freedom to work" law would make unions more responsive to members' needs and give employees freedom to decide whether to accept union representation.
"This does not change collective bargaining and this is not anti-union," House Speaker Jase Bolger said. "It is pro-worker."
An estimated 17.5 percent of workers in Michigan are members of unions. The bills working their way through the Legislature cover all public and private workers except police and firefighters.
The Legislature's actions on Thursday sparked outrage from U.S. Rep. John Dingell, D-Dearborn, who chalked it up as "heavy-handed union busting."
He called it "absolutely appalling" and said Snyder would do well not to sign the measure into law because it reflects the "skewed priorities of right-wing radical Republicans who are hell-bent on destroying the middle class." He said the labor movement in Michigan helped build the country's middle class and becoming a right-to-work state would undo years of hard-fought progress.
"I cannot condemn this bill strongly enough and consider it blatant kowtowing to special interests who don't blink twice when shipping jobs overseas and sticking it to working American families," Dingell said. "It's also disgraceful that Democrats were locked out of the Legislature and pepper spray was used on protesters to ensure this bill's passage."
The AFL-CIO estimated about 3,000 demonstrators were in and around the state Capitol on Thursday to protest the right-to-work legislation. Police arrested several protesters, sprayed mace at them, and even took steps to lock down entrances to the building. That only lasted until labor representatives filed suit and won a temporary injunction to reopen the doors.
The Washtenaw County Democratic Party decried what it perceived as a thwarting of the democratic process after House Bill 4054 was considered without a committee hearing or public testimony. The bill includes an appropriation, making it referendum-proof if signed into law.
"The people of Michigan deserve to have a voice in this process," said Party Chairman Cleveland Chandler. "The democratic process cannot simply be abandoned at the whim of the majority party. But Republicans should know that the people of Michigan will not forget, and while they may be silenced on this important issue, they will not be silenced when it comes time to vote.”
Ann Arbor Democrat Adam Zemke, who takes over the 55th District state House seat in January, also blasted Republicans for fast-tracking right-to-work in lame duck.
"So-called right-to-work legislation doesn't create jobs, drives down earnings for working families, and brings to Michigan the needless political battles seen in Ohio and Wisconsin," Zemke said. "To put it plainly, right to work is wrong for Michigan."
The Michigan Chamber of Commerce took a difference stance, agreeing with Snyder and the Republican leaders in the Lansing that right-to-work is good public policy that will protect all employees from being forced to join a union and pay dues against their will.
The chamber believes signing right-to-work into law will help create and retain jobs and improve Michigan's economic competitiveness.
Rutledge said it's a question of fairness.
"This plan deprives labor organizations of the right to fairly collect dues from all members who directly benefit from the bargaining process, inevitably forcing unions to advocate for and represent workers' needs without adequate resources," he said. "It's a right to free-load bill."
Under a right-to-work policy, Rutledge said, workers who choose to pay union dues are forced to subsidize representation for their co-workers who don't pay dues. He said studies by various nonpartisan organizations, including the Economic Policy Institute, demonstrate that right-to-work policies result in lower wages and poor benefits for all workers, union and nonunion alike.
U.S. Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., released a statement urging Snyder to reconsider his support for the measure, which he predicts will splinter the state and harm its working families.
"The combined efforts of labor and management have been crucial to the rebound of our auto industry," he said. "That's why it is so disappointing that the governor and Republicans in the Michigan Legislature have chosen this moment to take this destructive step."
Ryan J. Stanton covers government and politics for AnnArbor.com. Reach him at email@example.com or 734-623-2529. You also can follow him on Twitter or subscribe to AnnArbor.com's email newsletters.