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Michigan’s scrapping its right-to-work law is a big deal

MSNBC 3/27/2023 Zeeshan Aleem
Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer. © Provided by NBC News Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer.

Michigan repealed its “right-to-work” law Friday, scrapping the anti-union policy that has hurt worker organizing in the state for over a decade and marking the first time a state had repealed any such law in close to 60 years. It’s a big win for the welfare of workers in Michigan — and across the nation. 

Right-to-work laws have a deceptive name. They sound as if they’re meant to protect someone’s right to a job, but in reality they’re designed to make it harder for unions to function and organize. Martin Luther King Jr. rightly described “right to work” as one of the “false slogans” meant to fool the public, because the laws use the language of rights to weaken workers’ ability to fight big business. 

A brief bit of background: The National Labor Relations Act of 1935 allowed unions in workplaces to collect union dues from workers covered by their collective bargaining agreements, regardless of whether or not those workers decided to join the unions. The logic was that if workers benefit from what the unions win in collective bargaining agreements, then they should be obligated to pay dues for the institutions securing those benefits for them. But the Taft-Hartley Act of 1947 allowed states to introduce right-to-work laws, which prohibit mandatory collection of union dues for covered workers. That lets workers benefit from union contracts without paying the unions in their workplaces. 


Many right-to-work laws passed in Southern states in the mid-20th century, and then a new wave passed after the tea party wave in 2010 — a number of them in organized labor strongholds in the Midwest, including Michigan. The immediate effect of these laws is to reduce the flow of money to unions and shrink their resources for organizing and bargaining. As labor scholars have pointed out, the recently passed right-to-work laws in states such as Michigan, Indiana and Wisconsin reduced unionization rates and shrank wages in those states.

Right-to-work laws are underhanded not only in their name but also in terms of the political predicament they create. They put the burden on pro-union advocates to support a policy that imposes new costs on a subset of workers who are already getting benefits. They avoid attacking workers directly but instead undermine the funding mechanism meant to keep their organizing capacity strong. Yet under the first Democratic governing trifecta in close to 40 years, Michigan Democrats have managed to repeal the law. 

After having broken a long streak of inactivity, Michigan could help inspire other movements to repeal right-to-work laws, which exist in over two dozen states. And Michigan’s accomplishment will only add momentum to a surge in pro-union activity and sentiment across the country. Unions are the most popular they’ve been since 1965. Last year brought a big uptick in worker strikes and several high-profile union wins that captured national attention, such as Amazon warehouse workers’ winning their first union election in New York.

Michigan just became a friendlier place again for organized labor. Hopefully other states will follow suit.

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