How Labor Won the Repeal of "Right to Work" in MichiganRoundup
tags: Michigan, labor history, Right to Work Laws
Jennifer Standish is a doctoral candidate in the department of history at UNC Chapel Hill researching early right-to-work laws in the U.S South.
In late March, Michigan became the first state in 58 years to repeal its “right-to-work” law. As Republican-led states loosen child labor laws and Democrats in Congress anticipate another congressional rebuff of their proposed labor legislation, Michigan pointed the way toward a different political future for workers’ rights and Democratic politics.
In a state with a rich history of industrial unionism, the newly flipped Michigan government now in Democratic control repealed the state’s right-to-work law, which was passed under Republican control in 2012. This represents a major victory for labor — one that could be replicated in other states.
Looking back at how what conservatives call right-to-work laws spread across states in the first place offers important lessons to organized labor about how it can ensure that Michigan’s repeal does not become a one-off win. After all, right-to-work laws, like many other forms of antilabor legislation, began at the state level. And if labor advocates invest in local elections, state-level unions and politicians from the working class, these laws that have limited working-class collective politics for decades can end at the state level, as well.
Right-to-work laws create what economists call a “free-rider problem” for unions by banning “union security agreements,” which require that all workers who benefit from a union contract either join or pay dues to the union that negotiated it. Instead, in a right-to-work state, workers entering a unionized workplace can opt out of joining the union and paying dues while still earning union wages and benefits. Right-to-work laws threaten to rid unions of the only power they have: union membership and, in turn, the workplace solidarity, political lobbying power and dues-funded financial resources that enable unions to pressure employers and policymakers in the first place.
After decades of failed attempts by national employer groups and business magnates to ban union security, the first right-to-work laws were successfully passed at the state level.
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