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Michigan GOP pushes anti-union ‘right to work’ legislation


LANSING — Across the Midwest, from Madison to Columbus, organized labor is rallying against legislative and executive moves they say will undermine the ability of workers to organize and bargain collectively. And Michigan is staring down the barrel of very similar questions, debates and legislation.

“I am the president of a non-profit that intends to make RTW (Right to Work) a key initiative for the ’11-12 legislative session,” says former state Rep. Jack Hoogendyk of Texas Corners. Hoogendyk was term limited out of the state legislature in 2008 and ran two failed campaigns for federal office, including a primary challenge to Rep. Fred Upton (R-St. Joseph). His new group is called Citizens Alliance for Life and Liberty.

CALL is the new kid on the Michigan block when it comes to pushing right to work legislation. The movement includes Americans for Prosperity and conservative think tank the Mackinac Center.

Unlike Wisconsin and other states where GOP governor’s and lawmakers are taking on bargaining rights head-on, the Michigan Republican strategy appears to be more circumspect, introducing bills that chip away at years of pro-union court rulings.

The Service Employees International Union (SEIU) website describes [Article 1, Section 10](http://www.legislature.mi.gov/(zc02ipmbu4m5tc453gu5se55)/documents/mcl/pdf/mcl-Constitution-I.pdf) of the Michigan Constitution as prohibiting the ability of the state to interfere with contracts unless the state can prove an overwhelming necessity. This part of the Constitution has long been used to protect collective bargaining agreements for unions.

“Ideally, RTW would be placed into the Constitution. Mackinac has written model legislation that would meet constitutional requirements,” says Hoogendyk.

Pending a Constitutional amendment, lawmakers have introduced bills to create Right-to-Work zones, to provide unilateral power of emergency financial managers to toss out bargained union contracts, demolish the state’s “prevailing wage law” and eliminate binding arbitration for situations involving police and fire unions.

Progressives and labor say the movement is designed at undermining workers’ rights, while conservatives argue they are creating a more enticing business atmosphere.

“Labor is opposed to Right-to-Work legislation because its main purpose is to drive all workers wages down, destroy labor unions through the government taking away their freedom to collective bargain, and overall weaken the rights and protections of workers,” says Jonathan Byrd, legislative director of the Michigan Laborers’ Council. “It’s the same right- wing attacks we always see – people in power want to spend time punishing their enemies instead of doing their job, which should be to create jobs.”

Gary Glenn, who runs the American Family Association of Michigan, scored his first legislative scores in Idaho pushing for Right to Work legislation there. Idaho approved Right to Work 25 years ago, and Glenn recently returned to celebrate that win.

He says Right to Work is really about civil rights.

“State Right to Work laws are civil rights measures that protect employees against job discrimination on the basis of union affiliation by prohibiting collective bargaining agreements which require employees to join or pay dues to a labor union as a condition of continued employment, i.e., ‘pay up or you’re fired.’ The result is that each individual is free to choose for himself whether to join or financially support a union at his place of work, without fearing discrimination, retribution, or termination for whichever choice he makes,” Glenns said. “Obviously, employees in Right to Work states are just as free to exercise their federally-guaranteed right to join or support a union if they wish as they are anywhere else.”

Many Michigan groups, like CALL and a coalition of Tea Party groups who are hosting a day long conference in Lansing later this year, are turning to Glenn for advice, guidance and support in driving Right to Work legislation to the forefront of Michigan’s agenda.

And while Glenn trumpets the positive impact he says the law has had in Idaho, a story about the 25th anniversary of the legislation passage tells a slightly different story.

The Idaho Statesmen reports:

Union membership has tumbled nationwide since 1985, dropping from 18 percent to 12 percent of the work force.

“In Idaho, the decline was steeper, from 12 percent in 1985 to 6 percent in 2009.

[Jim]Kerns [former president of the Idaho AFL-CIO] and Glenn disagree on the economic impacts. Kerns points to the relative decline in Idaho wages, from 84 percent of the national average in 1985 to 75 percent in 2008. Glenn cites two decades of job growth that easily exceeded all but a few states.

Researchers also differ. One study says that after you account for the fact the Right to Work states started off poorer, wages have risen faster than national rates. Another says Right to Work has brought a 6.5 percent “wage penalty.”

Northwest Nazarene University economist Peter Crabb suggests Right to Work made employment more stable. Boise State economist Don Holley says lower wages may have made the housing bubble worse.

Glenn concedes there’s almost religious fervor about the impact of Right to Work.”

That fervor, the Statesman points out, played out in an aggressive ballot initiative. The campaigns on both sides used tactics that were “despicable” and ranged from “scurrilous to reprehensible,” the former political political writer for the Statement told the newspaper.

But Byrd says this legislation is part of a larger attack on working Americans and the working class by powerful corporate interests who profit more if wages go down.

“The Right-to-Work legislation is just more of the same partisan games,” said Byrd. “It’s legislation designed to take away more power from the everyday workers and tilt the balance even more towards corporate CEOs. Michigan is facing issues that are too important to ignore – we need the state legislature to get back to work and focus on creating jobs and ending tax breaks to corporate outsourcers. And we should care that the government is getting in the way of working people and their jobs. Legislation attacking unions is part of an ongoing assault by Wall Street on the middle class. If corporate CEOs weaken unions, then there’ll be even less checks on corporate power. And without checks on corporate power, even more American jobs will be shipped overseas to countries like China. Checks and balances is an essential part of what makes America the greatest country in the world.”

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