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Michigan Passes Right to Work; What Are Labor’s Next Options?

An hour after receiving two anti-union “right to work” bills from the Michigan legislature, Governor Rick Snyder signed them, alone, without fanfare, a sure sign of pride of ownership. Michigan becomes the 24th state to go to right to work, but the law will not take effect until April, and workers operating under current contracts are exempted from the rules. That puts a delayed effect on the ultimate implementation of the law, which could work to the advantage of the labor movement as they figure out a response.

I have no doubt there will be one, unlike in Indiana, where labor has not really attempted to overturn the law. I believe they had less options at their disposal, but there are tools available in Michigan, as well as a relatively dense unionized labor force ready to fight back.

According to the Detroit News, labor leaders have already filed suit against the passage of the law, arguing that it violated the state’s Open Meetings Act. In particular, they said the barring of the Capitol last week, and the lack of public hearings in the committee process, denied public input. You may recall that labor used the same tactic in Wisconsin, arguing that a hastily scheduled conference committee on that state’s anti-union law violated open meetings requirements. That suit was successful until it reached a partisan state Supreme Court, which basically argued that the legislature can do whatever it wants, the law be damned. The Michigan Supreme Court has a 4-3 Republican split right now, so that avenue is precarious.

The next possible step would be to pass a law overturning right to work at the ballot box. They can do this via a statutory initiative, which would require 258,000 signatures in order to reach the ballot. The decision to pursue this has not yet been made, probably because of the sting of losing a Constitutional amendment enshrining collective bargaining as a right just this past November. But just as labor may have overreached with that measure, the anti-union forces may have overreached on right to work.

So option #3 would be to wait for 2014, and attempt to throw out the Republican legislature and Rick Snyder. After the 2012 elections, Michigan Republicans hold a 59-51 advantage. There actually were no state Senate elections in Michigan in 2012, so the advantage remains very large in that chamber, 26-12. So Democrats would have to pick up 5 House seats and 8 Senate seats to gain control, as well as the Governor’s mansion. As several Republicans voted against right to work, they may not need all those votes to repeal the law. However, presumably a chamber of the legislature still in Republican control would resist a repeal vote.

Whatever the outcome, you can expect an actual fight here in the aftermath of the lame duck sneak attack on worker rights.

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David Dayen

David Dayen