One of the nation’s most heavily unionized states may soon become one of the largest right-to-work states in the country, a development welcomed by some union members.
Terry Bowman, a 16-year member of the United Auto Workers Union and founder of Union Conservatives, spent Tuesday lobbying Michigan lawmakers to pass labor reforms that would free workers from automatic union payments.
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"I’m feeling pretty confident of seeing something in lame duck," he said. "We’ve had the general support of the public and the support from the majority of legislators."
Bowman bused dozens of supporters, the majority of whom are union members, down to the Michigan state capitol in Lansing on Tuesday.
Unions are waging a spirited campaign to block Republican Gov. Rick Snyder and a Republican legislature from adopting the reforms before 2013. Labor leaders have derided the law as "right-to-work (for less)" and are telling members that it threatens collective bargaining rights, which are widely supported by Michigan residents.
"It’ll take away our ability to collectively bargain," Dia Pearce, an organizer with Unite Here, a union representing hotel, restaurant, stadium, and casino employees, told Bloomberg on Tuesday.
Bowman said the right-to-work-for-less moniker applies to union organizations rather than workers.
"It doesn’t ban unions or collective bargaining—that’s protected by federal law [the National Labor Relations Act]," he said. "It makes union officials answerable and accountable to the workforce."
Bowman was forced to join the UAW when he began working for Ford in 1996. He had to pay the union dues or a steep agency fee as a condition of employment. Right-to-work, he says, would give workers the freedom to withhold their dues if they do not approve of how union officials spend the money.
"I’m very pro-union on the context of what unions were created to do: to bargain on behalf of their members in the context of the workplace," he said. "But unions are forcing their members to pay for a political agenda that many of them don’t agree with."
Michigan is one of the largest union states in the country: 17.5 percent of its residents belong to labor unions, which is about 50 percent higher than the national average, according to a 2011 Bureau of Labor Statistics study.
However, labor groups in Michigan have suffered a series of setbacks in recent weeks.
Voters overwhelmingly rejected two union-backed constitutional amendments that would have protected forced unionization of family members that care for sickly relatives and enshrined collective bargaining in the state constitution. Labor groups spent millions on those efforts.
Democrats including state Senate Leader Gretchen Whitmer had hoped Barack Obama’s wide margin of victory would thwart GOP efforts to enact labor reforms.
"Over the last two years in Michigan, you’ve seen the GOP majority erode worker rights, specific bargaining powers, forcing public employees in particular to pay more and more into their contracts," Whitmer spokesman Bob McCann told the Washington Free Beacon after the election. "I think [the ballot initiatives are] going to close the door to further attacks [on unions] … because they raised awareness."
Snyder, who may face Whitmer in the 2014 governor’s race, went in the opposite direction. Although he had previously ruled out the labor reforms, he told reporters on Tuesday that "right-to-work is on the agenda; we are having discussions on it."
The UAW is planning a march from the state AFL-CIO headquarters to the Chamber of Commerce to protest the bill on Thursday.