TOPICS > Politics

Michigan ‘Right-to-Work’ Laws Spark Heated Debate on Role of Labor Unions

December 10, 2012 at 12:00 AM EST
In a lame-duck session, Michigan Republicans approved a pair of bills that would make the Great Lakes State into a "right to work" state. Organized labor was furious, accusing politicians of pushing through legislation with no opportunity for public comment. Gwen Ifill talks to two Michigan lawmakers with differing views.
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GWEN IFILL: Michigan, home to the United Auto Workers and one of the most heavily unionized states in the country, is suddenly ground zero in the national debate over workers rights, as the Republican lawmakers who control the state’s legislature prepare to cast a vote tomorrow that could permanently alter the political landscape.

Hundreds of people descended on the state capitol building in Lansing last week to protest a move to make Michigan a right-to-work state. Republicans running the State House and Senate have approved a pair of bills to allow workers to hold union jobs without joining the union.

Organized labor was furious.

GLORIA KEYES, UAW Member: You will have people that will be working right alongside of you that will not have to pay union dues, but you pay union dues, but will still be able to get all the benefits from being a union member.

GWEN IFILL: Democrats in the legislature complained that Republicans rammed through the bills with no hearings or public comments.

GRETCHEN WHITMER, D-Mich., state senator: This is a travesty. They’re pushing this at the 11th hour because they know that the public doesn’t want it.

GWEN IFILL: Republicans argue a right-to-work law will make Michigan more attractive to potential employers.

DAVE HILDENBRAND, R-Mich., state senator: It’s about creating an environment where job providers and employers will want to come to Michigan, create jobs in here, better jobs, more jobs.

MAN: We have hung out the open for business sign to the world to say Michigan has the best trained work force, now has options and opportunities for more people.

GWEN IFILL: Republican Gov. Rick Snyder agrees the law will help the state and has promised to sign it.

Snyder greeted President Obama when he traveled to Michigan today, but there was no indication that they discussed the right-to-work issue. The president was later cheered when he visited an engine assembly plant outside Detroit.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: These so-called right-to-work laws, they don’t have to do with economics. They have everything to do with politics.

(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

BARACK OBAMA: What they’re really talking about is giving you the right to work for less money.

GWEN IFILL: Twenty-three states have laws on the books banning the mandatory collection of union dues.

In Wisconsin, Republican Gov. Scott Walker turned aside a recall vote after he curtailed collective bargaining for public employees. And voters later repealed an Ohio law to reduce collective bargaining.

Michigan lawmakers are scheduled to vote on the right-to-work law tomorrow. Union supporters planning for large-scale protests spent the weekend in civil disobedience training.

Now, for more on the behind-the-scenes debate over right-to-work in Michigan, we’re joined by Michigan Congressman Sander Levin, a Democrat. He met today with Governor Snyder and with the president.

And Republican State Sen. John Proos, who’s one of the sponsors of right-to-work legislation.

Rep. Levin, I want to start with you because you met with two of the key people who have been debating this today, Gov. Snyder, President Obama. What were you there to say?

REP. SANDER LEVIN, D-Mich., state representative: To say this is a very divisive effort.

Michigan is already open for business. We added 30,000 auto jobs since the recession began. So, already, we’re growing.

And this would terribly disrupt the pattern of labor-management relations that has really evolved very effectively for the last decade-and-a-half. It’s deeply divisive.

Secondly, I want the record to be very clear. There is no requirement today that people pay union dues or belong to a union. What the law says is this.

If a majority of employees vote to be represented, if they decide to do that and if the employer decides to agree that there can be a requirement that people pay their fair share for representation, that can be done.

And it should be emphasized under the federal law and the state law, where a majority decides to be represented, the representative must, must represent everybody, regardless of whether or not they’re a union member. There can be no distinction.

I talked to someone today at Detroit Diesel. And he said this. He went down to the plant in North Carolina. And what — there was on a T-shirt, it said, “I ride. You pay.”

Essentially, people want to be free-riders and not be responsible and pay a fair share of the cost of representation after a democratic election.

That’s what this is all about.

GWEN IFILL: Let me talk to Senator — State Sen. Proos about that.

How do you respond to this idea that there’s no need for a law like this?

JOHN PROOS, R-Mich., state senator: Well, I think when you look at the issue of right to work or freedom to work, you really have to ask the question whether or not that individual is buying into a system that they care to be a part of, that they really choose to be a part of.

Do they have the ability to do so, or are they coerced into doing so in the process? And, frankly, when you look at the issues surrounding this particular question, you cannot operate in a vacuum.

You have to recognize the fact that states like Indiana that border our state of Michigan is the 23rd state. Michigan would be the 24th state. So, this isn’t a new discussion nationwide.

Twenty-four states in the next couple of days will be the right-to-work states that will put us in a better position for worker freedom, where they have the chance to actually choose to participate without it being compelled to do so.

GWEN IFILL: State Senator…

SANDER LEVIN: But let me just say the…

GWEN IFILL: Go ahead. Go ahead, Congressman.

SANDER LEVIN: Let me just say, in terms of brand-new, look, there has been no airing of this issue in Michigan. This legislation…

JOHN PROOS: I disagree completely, Congressman.

SANDER LEVIN: Well, listen, let me finish.

GWEN IFILL: Excuse me. Gentlemen, one at a time. I will give you your opportunity to respond.

SANDER LEVIN: Let me finish. Let me finish.

What happened was this. There was an election. This is a lame-duck session. And it was decided, well, because of the election, maybe you can’t get it through next year, so you push it through. There are no hearings ever been held on this in the state of Michigan. We have had a pattern of effective labor-management relations for many, many years.

And now you’re going to set people against each other. There’s no coercion here. Nobody has to join a union or pay dues. They have to pay a fair share of representation that must include…

GWEN IFILL: Let me ask you…

JOHN PROOS: Thanks, Gwen. I would like to respond. Thank you.

GWEN IFILL: Well, Congressman, I’m going to you a chance to respond.

State Senator, I just want to — I want you to respond and I also want you to ask — to answer this question for me, why now? Why are we doing this now?

JOHN PROOS: Well, we had significant debate in the Senate and in the House of Representatives. There were over 20 amendments that were debated and discussed. All of them were defeated in the process, but the reality is, is that workers today are in a competitive environment. There’s no question about that.

We exist in a competitive environment both nationally and internationally. And it’s up to each of the states to put themselves in the very best position to grow jobs and to grow the economy and to allow our Michigan businesses to compete to keep, grow and bring in new jobs.

And I’ll tell you, this border here between Indiana and Michigan, with Indiana now being right-to-work, is a great concern to me.

And I think it’s a great concern to those of us in the legislature who say let’s give those workers the freedom to choose if they want to participate, no difference than if they choose to go to a particular restaurant or choose a particular plumber or choose to have somebody that is giving them good value and good benefits for the pay that they give that individual or in this case that private organization.

GWEN IFILL: I would like either of you to cite for me a specific example, in your case, Congressman Levin, in your case, State Senator Proos, when that this — these right-to-work laws either depressed the economy or helped the economy in any other state and would specifically in Michigan, starting with you, Congressman.

SANDER LEVIN: They clearly depress wages.

And, look, we can compete in Michigan. We don’t have to compete with the lowest common denominator. We’re doing much better. We’re doing much better because people have a voice in the workplace.

And what the state senator is doing in essence is to snuff out the voice in the workplace, to destroy collective bargaining that made the middle class of Michigan and this country.

That’s what this is really all about.

GWEN IFILL: And, State Senator Proos, you mentioned Indiana repeatedly. But give me a specific example of how Indiana’s economy has been improved.

JOHN PROOS: You bet.

I think there are two very specific examples that we can point to. First off, on more of a global perspective, we have a 12.5 percent increase, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics — that’s a reputable organization that we all point to, to determine our specific statistics — 12.5 percent increase both in wages, as well as in jobs.

And we have only seen a 3.1 percent increase in those states that are not right-to-work. So, the right-to-work states have seen some good benefit. Let me point very specifically to a company in Fort Wayne, Ind., bringing 66 high-tech jobs to Fort Wayne, Android Industries.

Android Industries could go any place in the world. They chose Fort Wayne specifically, they noted, because it in fact is a right-to-work state. That’s the kind of competition that we need. And worker freedom gives that opportunity for that in the state of Michigan.

SANDER LEVIN: Let me just finish.

It’s not a matter of worker freedom. Look, the majority select a representative who must represent everybody without discrimination. And the issue is whether there will be free-riders, whether people who benefit from the representation have to pay a fair share. That’s a good American idea.

And it’s what has made the middle class of this country. We shouldn’t compete with the lowest common denominator. And that’s what this state senator and others are proposing.

The governor said it wasn’t on his agenda. All of a sudden, they’re cramming it through. It will be very destructive, divisive for the state of Michigan and beyond.

GWEN IFILL: Well, Congressman, the governor has said — and probably said this to you today — and I’m curious whether he did — that, in fact, union membership is declining in Michigan, so this wouldn’t really affect that many people.

SANDER LEVIN: You know, that’s such a fallacious argument.

This is the reason. Representation has lifted wages, benefits, and made sure people had health care and security.

And, you know, everybody has benefited, many who aren’t union members, because we have lifted — lifted the scale, instead of it going downward. We need not to really appeal mainly to lowering and lowering the level of wages and benefits in this country.

We need to uplift. And, essentially, this would put Michigan and others in a downward spiral, a frightfully bad mistake.

GWEN IFILL: State Sen. Proos, you have the final word.

JOHN PROOS: I appreciate that. Thank you, Gwen.

And I appreciate discussing this topic, because I think it’s so very important to the citizens of Michigan. And it is really important when you look at those statistics. I appreciate Congressman Sander Levin’s concern.

But when you look at the Bureau of Labor Statistics and a 12.5 percent increase in jobs and economic benefit, and when you look at companies like Android Industries in Indiana that are bringing new jobs to Indiana simply because of right-of-work, it’s important that we give workers that freedom to choose what they think is best for them and their representation, instead of paying that private industry, that private union that is instead providing what is in some cases a subpar service.

You ought to be buying a service that in fact you believe in and you believe is going to represent you well; 17 percent of Michigan are union folks today; 17 percent will be union tomorrow, Gwen.

GWEN IFILL: State Sen. John Proos, Republican, and Representative Sander Levin, a Democrat, thank you both very much.

SANDER LEVIN: Thanks very much.