Michigan, widely considered the birthplace of modern labor, became a right-to-work state in 2012. The passage of the law, which applied to both public and private employees, freed workers from being forced to pay dues or fees to unions with whom they do not wish to associate. But the law’s development, and its impact on Michigan’s workers, is a more complicated story that is worth reviewing.
In Michigan, public employees were first provided the ability to collectively bargain in 1947, via the Public Employment Relations Act. Driven largely by lobbying from teachers unions, PERA was significantly revised by Act 379 of 1965, which eliminated penalties for government employees who decided to strike. Strikes by public employees technically remained illegal, but in the absence of significant penalties, proliferated in the following decades. It wasn’t until 1994 that PERA would be rebalanced to create more neutrality in Michigan’s public sector labor law.
Public Act 112 of 1994 amended PERA to strengthen the penalties against striking employees. It also limited mandatory subjects of collective bargaining, which provided government employers with greater control over their workplaces. As a result of PA 112, strikes among public employees dropped significantly. Despite these reforms, public sector employees could still be required to pay a union as a condition of their employment.
Michigan’s transition into a right-to-work state had its genesis in an ill-conceived attempt by labor unions to enshrine broad collective bargaining privileges into the state constitution. In 2012, a ballot initiative was advanced by labor unions and their allies in response to relatively minor changes to PERA that prevented teachers unions from bargaining over employee evaluation standards, among other issues. The union-backed initiative was dubbed “Protect Our Jobs” and appeared on the ballot as Proposal 2.
Proposal 2 would have enshrined collective bargaining privileges in the Michigan Constitution as a guaranteed right of both public and private sector workers, making it impossible to enact a right-to-work law without a subsequent constitutional amendment.[*] It also would have invalidated any laws at the state or local level that were viewed as limiting a worker’s ability to join or support a union, with little guidance as to what would fall within that prohibition.
The most far-reaching element of Proposal 2 was to establish, as a matter of constitutional law, that a public sector collective bargaining agreement would override any present or future state laws that conflicted with that agreement. No law would have been immune from these sweeping powers. Even broadly applicable laws, such as the Freedom of Information Act, would have become unenforceable if they conflicted with a union contract. Essentially, this meant that the collective bargaining agreements negotiated by public sector unions and government employers would have more force of law than statutes passed by elected officials in the state Legislature.
Voters rejected Proposal 2, with 57% disapproving. This strong rejection suggested to lawmakers that Michigan might have reached a point where the public would support right-to-work.
Legislators quickly drafted a right-to-work bill. Its success was far from guaranteed, however. Michigan has a long history with the labor movement and was the fifth most unionized state in the nation. No matter the extent to which the public favored a right-to-work law, Michigan unions would raise a cacophony of complaints about passing such a law.
And object they did, at raucous and destructive union protests. Some union members were arrested. Others focused their anger on the supporters of right-to-work, tearing down a tent erected on the Capitol lawn by the grassroots advocacy group Americans for Prosperity. One pro-union protestor issued veiled threats to then-Gov. Rick Snyder, claiming he would get “no rest” if he signed right-to-work, and that he would face protestors at his home, at his daughter’s soccer games and at his church.
Despite this threatening environment, legislators passed the right-to-work bill. On Dec. 11, 2012, Gov. Snyder signed right-to-work into law, officially making Michigan the nation’s 24th state to adopt the policy.[†]
[*] Illinois adopted a constitutional amendment containing similar privileges for collective bargaining in 2022. “Illinois Amendment 1, Right to Collective Bargaining Measure (2022)” (Ballotpedia), https://perma.cc/7DUT-RDJR.
[†] The law did not take effect until March 2013. Many unions took advantage of this by rushing to sign new contracts before the law’s effective date, forcing employees to continue paying dues or fees for years into the future.