The political adage “Elections have consequences” is going to be put on display in Michigan in ways that could benefit IBEW members and all working families, including a potential repeal of the state’s so-called right-to-work law.
Gov. Gretchen Whitmer was reelected and Democrats won control of both the state House and Senate, giving the party total control of the governor’s mansion and the legislature for the first time since 1984. They also held on to the attorney general and secretary of state positions.
“It’s like asking Santa for a pony, and instead you get a Dodge Barracuda,” said Michigan Political Director Joe Davis, a member of Lansing Local 352. “You wake up and it’s there, and it’s an amazing feeling. Everything came together for us.”
The election puts Michigan in position to repeal the right-to-work law that went into effect in 2013. Right-to-work laws allow employees to enjoy the benefits and protections of a collectively bargained agreement by a union without paying fees.
“Right-to-work, the union-busting law, we’ll repeal that,” Dayna Polehanki, a state senator from Livonia, told Detroit television station WXYZ.
No one is sure how fast it may happen. The legislative session began on Jan. 12. But lawmakers have a realistic chance to tackle right-to-work, as well as several other initiatives that would benefit the state’s workers, such as making prevailing wage a permanent part of state law again.
“We have an opportunity to help all the residents of the state, whether they are organized and represented or not, and fix what has basically gone wrong for the last 40 years,” Detroit Local 58 registrar Jeannette Bradshaw said.
Michigan wouldn’t be the first state to repeal a right-to-work law, but it hasn’t happened in generations. New Hampshire repealed its law in 1949, two years after it was passed, and attempts to reinstitute it have failed since.
Indiana passed and signed into law a right-to-work bill in 1957 that was repealed in 1965. The GOP-dominated legislature and governor’s office passed and signed a new right-to-work law in 2012 that remains in effect.
Right-to-work advocates have made no secret that the laws are used to undermine the influence of unions and their ability to advocate on behalf of their members.
“The first thing I would like to see, in my opinion, would be a right-to-work repeal,” said Geoff Yonkers, a business representative for Muskegon Local 275 who was one of the IBEW’s leaders in the Michigan campaign.
Other issues the legislature is expected to address include:
- The re-institution of project labor agreements, which ensure that highly skilled construction workers are paid a fair wage on the state’s public projects. It also makes it harder for less-scrupulous employers to exploit workers by classifying them as subcontractors as opposed to full-time employees.
“Economically, they really are beneficial to labor, and they don’t hurt nonunion contractors unless you’re a contractor who doesn’t follow the rules in the first place,” Davis said.
- The elimination of the so-called pension tax, part of a GOP tax overhaul in 2011 that scaled back or eliminated most exemptions taxpayers could take on their pensions.
- Changing a law that requires public-sector union members in Michigan to fill out membership fees paperwork annually, another effort from the state’s GOP-controlled era to weaken unions.
“We need to look out for everyone, not just ourselves,” Bradshaw said. “If we do that, we can show the state we’re not just in it for us and really leverage our political power.”
The victories in Michigan took a lot of work by union members, including those in the IBEW. That included getting out a vote for a successful ballot initiative in 2018 that created more balanced legislative districts and took away some of the advantages that anti-union legislators had gerrymandered into the process.
Those new districts were in play for the first time in 2022.
“Having the ability to have competitive districts throughout the state allowed us to have the success we did,” Davis said.
Yonkers noted that the five campaigns the IBEW prioritized and put additional resources behind all won. Those were four statehouse races and the U.S. congressional race to reelect Rep. Elissa Slotkin, who has been a labor advocate while in Washington.
“We obviously backed them with our money, but more importantly with our membership,” Yonkers said.
Yonkers noted that polls showed that at least two-thirds of Michigan’s union members voted for Whitmer.”Voters here understand we need a government similar to what we have with President Biden, who doesn’t have a problem talking about unions,” he said. “I think we have that.”