Politics & Government
6:07 pm
Tue December 4, 2012

'Right-to-work' builds momentum in Michigan

The question hanging over the state Capitol is whether the Legislature will take up a so-called “right-to-work” bill during its lame duck session.

Activists on both sides of the issue showed up in force to lobby lawmakers.      

A growing chorus of conservatives says this is the moment for Michigan to join 23 other states that have enacted laws to end the closed shop and allow workers to opt out of paying union dues.

Scott Hagerstrom is with the group Americans for Prosperity, one of the champions of right-to-work.

“I think this is the best opportunity I’ve ever seen for this to pass,” said Hagerstrom.

He said that’s because neighboring Indiana just became a right-to-work state earlier this year.

And because Michigan voters rejected Proposal Two last month. That’s the ballot question that would have scrapped many labor relations laws and preempted a right-to-work fight by guaranteeing collective bargaining rights in the state constitution.       

Hagerstrom said word that right-to-work might be taken up was enough to get a bunch of his group’s members out to press for action.

"I think this is the best opportunity I've ever seen for this to pass," said Hagerstrom.

“Is right-to-work down? Is right-to-work up? Is it going to happen? Is it not going to happen? We want to make sure the citizens of Michigan, our activists, have their voices heard today…” he said.

So, Hagerstrom, members of his group and other tea party groups crowded into the halls and lobbies of the House and Senate – working shoulder to shoulder with union activists like Katie Kelley, who is a member of a public transit workers union.

“We don’t believe it would be good for the Michigan economy. We believe the economy is still at a very fragile point in Michigan. And we do not believe that right to work is the way to bring the economy back,” Kelley said. 

Whether Governor Rick Snyder agrees is still a bit of an unknown. His position is the right-to-work issue is not on his agenda – but he won’t say publicly what he’d do if a bill reaches his desk.

There’s also no decision on what a right-to-work bill might encompass.

It could be a sweeping measure that covers every workplace. It could only cover public employee unions. It could do that, but exempt police officers and firefighters.

No one has yet formally introduced a bill. Republican state Representative Mike Shirkey said he’d like to, but is mum on details.

“We’re going to let the legislative process run its course, and I’m optimistic. You’re not going to get anything more than that from me, sir,” said Shirkey.

The Michigan Freedom Fund has paid for an ad to air statewide in an effort to generate phone calls and e-mails to legislators’ offices supporting right to work.

There would be a political price to pay if Republicans go down that road. Democrats and unions say it would essentially be a declaration of war on labor.

“Freedom. Choice. We cherish it. And there’s a plan to protect our freedom in Michigan…..” the ad says.

An organizer says the group will continue pushing for action until the final day of the Legislature’s session. Grover Norquist – of “no tax” pledge” fame – has sent a letter to every Michigan lawmaker.

There would be a political price to pay if Republicans go down that road.

Democrats and unions say it would essentially be a declaration of war on labor. They are threatening recalls and other actions if it comes to that.

The issue would certainly be used by both sides to organize for the 2014 statewide elections.

But Republican leaders are also using the mere prospect of right to work as a negotiating tool on other issues. For example, they are pressing Democrats to cooperate on drafting a new emergency manager law that would replace the one just rejected by voters.

That would be part of their price for not making Michigan the nation’s 24th right-to-work state.