By Rayza Goldsmith, Daily News Editor
Published December 6, 2012
Both the Michigan House of Representatives and Senate passed right-to-work bills on Thursday, taking the state one step closer to becoming the 24th right-to-work state in the nation.
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At a press conference Thursday, Republican Gov. Rick Snyder announced that he was prepared to sign right-to-work legislation into law should it reach his desk. Later in the day, three separate right-to-work bills were introduced in the state House and Senate that will eventually be consolidated into two bills.
House Bill 4054 passed in the House at about 4:45 p.m. by a a 58-52 margin. All Democrats and six Republicans voted against the resolution. At around 7:45 p.m., the Senate passed its own right-to-work bills. The first, which deals with public employees, passed with a vote of 22-16, with all Senate Democrats and four Senate Republicans voting against it. The second, which addresses private-sector employees, passed 22-4. Senate Democrats walked out of the chamber before the vote was taken.
The House version failed to make its way to the Senate on Thursday due to a move by the Democrats to reconsider the vote. The Senate will have to wait until the next session day, which could be Friday, to deliberate on the House version of the bill.
Snyder has been unwilling to address right-to-work legislation since before he was elected governor in 2010, according to Kurt Weiss, a spokesman for Snyder.
“The governor has been pretty clear that this hasn’t been something that’s been on his agenda,” Weiss said. “It is on the table now because, you know, Proposal 2 was on the ballot, and it’s become an issue.”
If signed by the governor, the bills would prohibit union membership as a requirement for employment.
Though Republican governors elected in 2010 in Wisconsin, Ohio, Indiana and elsewhere moved to pass right-to-work laws soon after taking office, Snyder has been reluctant to combat union rights.
Weiss added that the governor feels the issue about granting workers the choice of whether or not to join of union instead of opposing unions as a whole.
“(Snyder) feels very strongly that people ought to have the choice,” Weiss said. “He clearly does not view this as an issue of being anti-union. He’s been very clear that he supports unions, he supports collective bargaining, but he also supports choice, and he very much feels that folks ought to have the right to choose whether or not they join or not.”
However, Democratic legislators and those in favor of collective bargaining have argued that the legislation is purely an attempt to dismantle unions.
State Rep. Jeff Irwin (D–Ann Arbor) said Republican legislators are taking advantage of the lame-duck session to enact legislation that won’t be feasible once the new Legislature takes over in January.
“Republicans lost elections across the state of Michigan, and their agenda was pretty roundly repudiated, and now this is their really last chance to get this done before the will of the voters is enacted with the new Legislature in January,” Irwin said. “So, this is the time when a lot of their members who lost elections because they support things like right-to-work are going to have one last chance to exact retribution.”
Irwin added that the assertion that the legislation is a response to failure of Proposal 2 — which appeared on the ballot on Nov. 6 and sought to grant Michiganders the constitutional right to collectively bargain — is an excuse.
“It’s no secret that the Republican Party represents rich and powerful interests, and those rich and powerful interests want to pay workers less, and so I think Rick Snyder’s just responding to the drum beat of his party,” Irwin said.
Irwin further asserted that the implications of the legislation are dire for the state.
“What the governor’s proposing is a policy that will drive down wages and hurt Michigan’s economy,” Irwin said. “And we know that when you look around the country, the states that have the most dynamic, successful economies are states that respect their workers and that invest in education.”
The bills could spark a national debate as President Barack Obama is scheduled to visit metro Detroit on Monday. In a statement to the Detroit Free Press, a White House said the president adamantly opposes right-to-work legislation.
“President Obama has long opposed so-called ‘right-to-work’ laws, and he continues to oppose them now,” the spokesman said on Thursday. “The President believes our economy is stronger when workers get good wages and good benefits, and he opposes attempts to roll back their rights.”
Right-to-work isn’t the only union legislation to be addressed by the state Legislature this term. In February, the Legislature passed Senate Bill 971, amending the Public Employment Relations Act to include a provision defining Graduate Student Research Assistants as students, not employees, which effectively prohibited them from collectively bargaining.
The Graduate Employees’ Organization — the union representing University graduate students — led the fight to achieve collective bargaining rights for GSRAs during the winter semester. On Thursday, representatives of the group rallied along with other union supporters on the steps of the Capitol Building in Lansing to oppose right-to-work legislation.
Rackham student Liz Rodrigues, the communications director for GEO, said group members have been lobbying in Lansing all week but showed up early this morning amid reports that right-to-work legislation would actually be introduced.
“If it becomes law, the evidence is pretty much in that workers in Michigan are going to see their wages go down,” Rodrigues said. “That’s what’s happened in every single state because the tools that they negotiate for their wages and benefits are substantially weakened by bills like this, so that will be what happens at a statewide level.”
Rodrigues added that GEO will continue to try to organize, but its ability to do so will be significantly limited if the bill is signed into law.
Rodrigues further asserted that the success of the legislation has negative implications for the University.
“I think in the long run this means the University of Michigan will become less competitive for graduate students because we will not be able to negotiate for good wages and benefits for our work,” she said.
Rodrigues said Michigan is unlikely to see backlash to the same degree as was experienced in Ohio after Republican Gov. John Kasich pushed right-to-work legislation in 2010, given the way in which the legislation has come about.
Though many have taken note that all action on the legislation has occurred in the lame-duck session, a provision for the bill to take immediate effect — and therefore avoid the standard 90-day vetting process for bills — has not been attached to the pending legislation.
Furthermore, the legislation notably excludes firefighters and police officers, though Irwin was skeptical of the intentions behind such action.
“It takes a little bit of edge off of the political consequences that some of these Republican legislators might have to face,” he said.
LSA junior Russell Hayes, a member of the University’s chapter of the College Republicans, echoed the governor’s sentiments regarding the legislation.
“I think it’s a positive thing,” Hayes said. “It reflects the mandate of the voters and the referendum that endorsed this opportunity for right-to-work. As we saw, Proposition 2, which would pretty much ban right-to-work, was struck down by the majority of voters in the state of Michigan.”
Hayes added that the state’s manufacturers will reap benefits from the legislation.
Katie Oppenheim, the chair of the University of Michigan Professional Nurse Council, also weighed in on the legislation, and said the UMPNC will be forced to reevaluate their tactics should it pass.
“For us as nurses, we know that we will have to continue to fight to have appropriate staffing and appropriate ... devices and such to take care of our patients,” Oppenheim said. “We’re going to continue to fight for our patients like we always do. This is obviously disappointing, but we’ll continue to fight. We’ll have to regroup and decide what our next step will be.”
Daily Staff Reporter Molly Block contributed to this report.
This story was updated with additional information at 10 p.m.