Lansing Michigan's 'right to work' debate starts to intensify

By Tim Martin

Associated Press

LANSING, Mich. (AP) -- Indiana's move to become the Rust Belt's first "right-to-work" state has intensified debate over the issue in neighboring Michigan.

Supporters of right-to-work laws say they're more convinced than ever that Michigan should take a similar step in hopes of lessening union clout and attracting more jobs. But opponents, including the state's labor unions, say right-to-work momentum should be stopped because the law would hurt Michigan.

It may provide one of the state's most compelling political and legislative story lines in 2012.

Indiana "upped the ante" for Midwest states competing to attract businesses and jobs with its recently approved law, said Michigan Rep. Mike Shirkey, who supports right-to-work measures.

"In my mind there is no doubt this is going to add additional incentive for Michigan to take this up and have an open, honest and transparent debate about it," said Shirkey, a Republican from Clarklake.

Right-to-work laws prohibit labor contracts that require workers to pay union representation fees. Indiana is the 23rd state to adopt such a measure.

Right-to-work talk historically had never gained much momentum in Michigan, a relative union stronghold where roughly 18 percent of employed workers now are represented by labor unions. But debate began to escalate last year, and supporters are expecting to soon introduce legislation aimed at making Michigan a right-to-work state.

Republicans control both chambers of the Michigan Legislature and the state's administration with Gov. Rick Snyder, but the GOP appears divided on the issue. That would make the measure more difficult to pass, with Democrats united against it.

Snyder calls the right-to-work debate divisive and says he doesn't want legislation sent to his desk. Senate Majority Leader Randy Richardville does not support general right-to-work legislation and says he doesn't think a right-to-work law would have the substantial economic benefits for Michigan that some supporters say it would. Richardville said last month he thought a general right-to-work measure, if it advanced to the Senate floor, would be voted down.

But in the House, Speaker Jase Bolger leans toward supporting right-to-work measures and would welcome a debate on the issue.

Supporters say a right-to-work law could help make Michigan more attractive to businesses, coming on top of recent laws to cut overall business taxes and save employers money on worker's compensation and unemployment insurance. They say right-to-work status factors into decisions about company expansions and locations and that Indiana now has a competitive advantage over Michigan because of its new law.

Shirkey sent maize-and-blue, University of Michigan-themed roses to Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels, thanking him for leadership on the right-to-work issue. Shirkey said he's dismayed Indiana beat Michigan to the punch, but he's hoping it will give Michigan incentive to follow suit.

An organization supporting a right-to-work campaign in the Great Lakes state, Michigan Freedom to Work, quickly sent out an email seeking donations and urging supporters to contact Michigan lawmakers after Indiana's measure was signed into law.

Critics of right-to-work laws say supporters are misinformed about potential economic benefits. They say a state's education system, roads and other infrastructure issues are the real drivers for business location decisions. And they say becoming a right-to-work state would erode wages and benefits for union and non-union workers.

"For both unionized workers and non-unionized workers, this is a policy that we are prepared to fight with whatever it takes," said Karla Swift, president of the Michigan AFL-CIO.

Published: Tue, Feb 7, 2012