How Right to Work Works

Slow implementation of law gives Michigan time to adjust, makes benefits apparent

Michigan right-to-work protest / AP
December 19, 2012

Michigan workers will have to wait until at least April to opt out of forced unionism, but one of the chief architects of the state’s right-to-work movement said the benefits will soon become apparent.

State Sen. Arlan B. Meekhof, a long-time champion of right-to-work legislation and one of the law’s authors, said the legislation is tailor-made to succeed in the state and sends a signal to companies that Michigan’s business climate has improved.

"We did some policy research with what has been done in other states and we put together what we thought would work best for Michigan," he said. "The perception now is that Michigan is open for business."

Gradual implementation is a major component of the GOP strategy. When the law is implemented in April 2013, it will apply only to new businesses or workers who are not bound by contracts. While new job creators will be able to open up shop without worry of onerous union contracts, United Auto Workers (UAW) members at Ford will maintain paying union dues until their contract expires in 2015.

"We purposefully set this up to not break any contracts," Meekhof said. "Once a contract is completed, then the workers would have the choice."

Meekhof hopes that the incremental strategy will prevent the kind of union protests that led to Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker’s recall election and helped overturn Ohio Gov. John Kasich’s labor reforms via referendum.

Republicans also included certain policies that safeguarded right-to-work in the court of public opinion.

The right-to-work law exempts cops and firemen, powerful uniformed labor forces that garner a great deal of respect from voters. The law’s authors also avoided the prospect of repeal-by-referendum by tacking on a $1 million appropriation to "educate" workers about their new rights. Appropriations bills are exempt from referendum.

Democrats have called both moves political gambits and are looking to incorporate those aspects of the bill into legal challenges to the law. Meekhof contends that both components abide by the Michigan Constitution.

He claims the appropriation was needed in order to ensure workers understand the new law.

"This is something entirely new in labor relations, so we need to make sure [workers] are educated, so they have the best information available," Meekhof said of the disputed appropriation.

He defended the public safety exemption by pointing to the Michigan Constitution, which prohibits them from striking.

"They are already treated differently [in the state constitution], so that was the right way to go," Meekhof said.

The delayed start-date of right-to-work is not entirely the Republican Party’s doing.

Any bill in Michigan that passes but does not garner two-thirds support in both houses of the legislature must wait 90 days for implementation. Right-to-work failed to clear that bar in the Senate, leaving Michigan Senate Democratic Leader Gretchen Whitmer and her fellow Democrats hopeful for a legal intervention.

"The delay in the implementation buys workers time to figure out their first step. They may be able to find a judge that will put a stay on it," said Robert McCann, a spokesman for Whitmer. "They may have set up legal problems for themselves … we believe [the] legal challenges are going to overturn them."

Unions have already filed one lawsuit to block the law and more are expected to be filed.

Meekhof said Michigan will benefit from the changes even before it takes effect by attracting business owners. A small business owner himself, he grew to appreciate the contrast between his non-union office furniture company and those of his unionized customers.

"When you’re a small business owner trying to serve a large customer, you have to be as flexible as you can … the work rules in union contracts can restrict that flexibility," he said.

Meekhof doggedly pursued a right-to-work agenda since 2007 when he was a state representative.

The Senator introduced a right-to-work bill in February 2011 despite Gov. Rick Snyder’s initial unease with pushing the reforms—one year before Indiana became the industrial Midwest’s first right-to-work state. Republicans failed to back the bill. It never made it out of the Senate.

"My district is 80 percent Republican," Meekhof said. "You always have to remember that not everybody has that [safety]."

He said that Indiana’s success in attracting businesses after it became the 23rd right-to-work state in the country brought prominent Republicans, including Snyder, around to the cause.

"What we’re focused on is the economic opportunity for all citizens of Michigan … [Indiana’s results] answered that question and swayed the most people," Meekhof said.