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The big union fight in Michigan explained

Michigan Republican Gov. Rick Snyder is expected to sign right-to-work legislation as early as today that will prevent employees in the state from having to pay dues to a union. Appearing at an event outside Detroit Monday, President Obama assailed the legislation as a political ploydesigned to "take away your right to bargain for better wages"; he referred to the legislation as "right to work for less money."


Unions are outraged that right-to-work legislation has come to the state that is, to some degree, the symbolic heart of the labor movement; conservatives say that it will give more freedom to workers and create "more and better jobs in Michigan," in Snyder's words.

Right-to-work is complicated, starting with that carefully-crafted name - who, you might wonder, would oppose the right to work? Below, we explore the debate around right-to-work laws and what the current fight means for Michigan and the rest of the nation.

What is right-to-work?

It's the name that proponents have given to legislation that prevents agreements in which employees are required to pay union dues.

Even without a right-to-work law in place, American workers can't be forced to join a union. But many unions and companies have arrangements in which workers are required to pay union dues as a condition for employment, even if they don't join the union. Right-to-work laws make such agreements illegal. Employees can choose not to join a union, though they would still receive the benefits of union representation if their company is unionized.

Supporters of such laws - largely Republicans and business interests, including the Koch brothers - say workers should have the right not to pay union dues if they don't want to. (They also call the laws "freedom to work" legislation.) In addition, they say that right-to-work laws are good for business. Economist Thomas Holmes in 2000 found that growth in manufacturing in counties near the border in right-to-work states was 26 percentage points greater than non-right-to-work states - a finding trumpeted by right-to-work supporters

Critics - largely Democrats and unions - say the laws are designed to weaken unions. If employees are not required to pay union dues, they point out, unions are likely to shrink and labor will have less leverage to engage in collective bargaining. That results, they say, in lower wages and worse working conditions. Opponents of the law also say it's no surprise that businesses are drawn to states with anti-union policies, as well as looser regulation and lower taxes, but that doesn't prove such policies are good for the economy - and workers shouldn't have to suffer in a race-to-the-bottom battle between states to appeal to businesses.

So what has happened in Michigan?

Last Thursday, Michigan's GOP-led legislature passed bills to make Michigan the 24th state with right-to-work laws on the books. The move came as something of a surprise, in part because Snyder, the governor, has long maintained that right-to-work was not on his agenda. The first-term governor, who has until now largely been viewed as a moderate, said Thursday he plans to sign the measure despite it being a "divisive issue."

Thousands of union workers protested the vote Thursday in Michigan's capital, Lansing, chanting "shame on you" at lawmakers; eight were arrested. The fight over right-to-work has particular resonance in Michigan, which is arguably the heart of the labor movement: "Sit down" strikes in Flint in the 1930s launched the United Auto Workers as a major power and led to the unionization of the U.S. auto industry.

Unions have already seen decades of setbacks, both in membership and public policy: Over the past half-century, the percentage of American workers in a union has declined from 30 percent to less than 12 percent. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics says that Michigan has the fifth-highest percentage of unionized workers in the nation; 2012 election exit polls showed that 28 percent of Michigan voters live in union households. 

On Monday, seven Democratic members of Congress called on Snyder to either veto or delay the right-to-work legislation, saying that it will create discord in the state that will last for years. "The Governor listened, and he told us he would seriously consider our concerns," Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., told reporters after the meeting. Hours later, however, Snyder tweeted, "Freedom to work is all about creating more and better jobs in Michigan." Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said in a statement Monday that Republicans are attempting "to assault the collective bargaining process and undermine the standard of living it has helped foster." 

President Obama won Michigan by nearly 10 points in November - though the state's voters also rejected a UAW-backed amendment that would have enshrined collective bargaining rights in the state's constitution. Last Thursday the White House came out squarely against the proposed legislation, with spokesman Matt Lehrich saying "[t]he President believes our economy is stronger when workers get good wages and good benefits, and he opposes attempts to roll back their rights." The "big three" U.S. automakers, meanwhile, say they are neutral on the legislation. 

What's next?

An ugly scene in Lansing today. With Snyder standing by his plans to sign the legislation after the final versions clear the legislature, protesters are set to descend on the state capitol. (UPDATE: Protests are in full effect, with thousands convening in the capitol this morning.) According to The Detroit News, members of the United Auto Workers Local 600 engaged in civil disobedience training over the weekend, and members of the Michigan Nurses Association plan to gather on the Capitol steps with duct tape over their mouths. Republicans, meanwhile, have set up call centers so that volunteers can contact Michigan GOP House lawmakers and ask them to follow through on their support for the measure. (UPDATE: The House passed one of two measures late this afternoon, as protesters booed.)

UAW President Bob King says that if the legislation is passed and signed, the union will consider efforts to recall state lawmakers as well as Snyder, in a potential repeat of the recall fight that took place in Wisconsin. Last year Ohio voters overturned a measure banning collective bargaining, but that won't happen in Michigan: The right-to-work language was attached to a spending measure, and spending bills cannot be overturned by referendum. Because Snyder already faces reelection in two years, there may not be a big push to recall him. But Democrats and union members will at the very least be energized in efforts to keep him from a second term.

Some commentators, meanwhile, are despairing at what the likely passage of the law in Michigan portends in the rest of the nation. "

For a long time the United States has existed as a 'house divided' in this regard," wrote Matt Yglesias in Slate. "Democrats in states like Virginia and Nevada didn't seriously try to repeal right-to-work laws, while Republicans in the northeast and midwest didn't try to implement them. But if right-to-work can pass in Michigan, then why shouldn't Republicans press for it in Wisconsin or Ohio or Pennsylvania?"