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Should Michigan GOP brace for reprisal over 'right to work' law?

When Republicans in Wisconsin and Ohio took on Big Labor, unions fought back ferociously. But Michigan's GOP lawmakers, calculating the political risks of pushing a 'right to work' law, may have looked to Indiana as a better precedent.

By Staff writer / December 11, 2012

Thousands of protesters rally outside the state Capitol as lawmakers push final versions of right-to-work legislation in Lansing, Mich., Tuesday. The GOP majority has used its superior numbers and backing from Gov. Rick Snyder to speed the legislation through the House and Senate last week.

Carlos Osorio/AP


Now that GOP-led Michigan lawmakers have approved a so-called right-to-work law, defying hot-under-the-collar union members and most Democrats, the next question becomes this: Should they be worried about reprisal? 

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There's certainly precedent for concern. In two other Midwestern states that took on Big Labor, the unions fought back, hard. Ohio voters ultimately undid a law that limited unions' collective bargaining powers, and Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker and several GOP lawmakers faced bruising recall elections this year (though the governor ultimately prevailed) after that state clipped union clout in bargaining.

Michigan-based union leaders, moreover, are already talking tough. “Let me tell the governor and all those elected officials who vote for this shameful, divisive bill – there will be repercussions," Teamsters General President Jim Hoffa said in a statement Tuesday just before the Michigan bills were finalized. "Some day soon, they will face the voters of Michigan and they will have to explain why they sided with the billionaires to back this destructive legislation.”

The legislation, which Gov. Rick Snyder (R) signed late Tuesday, bars unions from forcing workers to join their ranks or to pay monthly dues to retain their jobs, making Michigan the 24th state to adopt what backers call a "right-to-work" law. The Republicans' move to push such a law appeared to catch labor leaders off guard, as Governor Snyder had previously said he was not inclined to push for legislation that unions perceive as hostile, especially in a state where the International Brotherhood of Teamsters and United Auto Workers have deep roots.

But Michigan lawmakers say unions have no one but themselves to blame. The unions' decision to push for a November referendum to amend the state constitution to protect collective bargaining rights had infuriated the Republicans. When the referendum lost badly, the GOP interpreted that as a green light to rush through the legislature two right-to-work bills – one aimed at public-sector unions and the second at private. The package, which does not apply to police or firefighter unions, was introduced last Thursday, and by Friday both the state House and Senate had voted in favor. A final vote took place Tuesday, and Governor Snyder then signed the package.

“When the unions made the effort to push through the referendum and lost resoundingly, that changed the game,” says Marick Masters, a political scientist and labor management relations expert at Wayne State University in Detroit. “That amendment angered the conservative base of the Republican Party to no end, and so they decided to pursue right-to-work aggressively.”


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