Jan 7, 2008
Labor ready to fight Right to Work, but enemy may be hard to find
Organized labor in Michigan is busy gearing up for what it believes is the first battle in the push by conservatives to make Michigan a so-called Right to Work (RTW) state, but organized labor may not have anyone to fight in the initial round.
For months there have been rumors of a push by conservative groups and individuals from out of state to make Michigan a RTW state by collecting signatures for a citizen initiative. Proponents of RTW claim the law would do away with the requirement that workers must be in a union to be employed at a union shop. However, federal law already protects workers who don't want to join a union to get or keep their jobs, and the law gives workers the right to opt out of a union. But they must still pay union dues. RTW would give them the option of not paying dues while still enjoying the benefits of being in a union.
RTW bills are before both the Michigan House and Senate, but are stuck in committee. In the House, Rep. Jacob Hoogendyk, R-Kalamazoo, introduced Bill 4454, and Rep. Kevin Elsenheimer, R-Bellaire, introduced Bill 4455, both to make Michigan a RTW state. In the Senate, Sen. Nancy Cassis, R-Novi, introduced companion bills, 607 and 608. Union officials say they are hearing that petitions will be circulated to make RTW a ballot initiative, and organizers of the petitions will use the Jan. 15 Michigan Presidential Primary to collect the signatures. But union officials say no organized effort has stepped up to lead that effort, and there appears to be some concern among those pushing RTW that the high turnout expected in the 2008 General Election may hurt the cause because Michigan has such a high union membership that can be mobilized to vote.
“The latest info I have is there will be no signatures gathered at the polls here,” said Paul Hufnagel, the president of the Greater Lansing Labor Council.
To start a citizen initiative, supporters of RTW only have to collect the valid signatures of registered voters equal to 8 percent of the total number of votes cast for all candidates for governor in the last election. That comes out to 304,101 valid signatures of registered voters. Once the petition signatures are verified, the state Legislature has 40 session days to adopt or reject the proposal, and if it is rejected it is placed on the ballot for the next general election.
But although labor is not sure that signatures will be gathered during the primary, leaders are not conceding the point, and in case RTW supporters do mount a petition drive, labor is actively recruiting people to be at the polling stations where signatures will be collected and give the other side of the issue and ask voters to decline to sign. The plan is to have at least one person at each of 2,500 polling places across the state during the time the polls are open in two shifts. Training sessions are being held for those volunteers signed up right up until the polls open.
“The Michigan Republican Party may have placed this on the back burner, but it is still out there,” Hufnagel said.
Labor leaders say that even if there are no signature gathers at the polls this time around, the issue is not going away any time soon, and those pushing RTW see Michigan, as the home of the United Auto Workers (UAW), as a chance for a symbolic victory.
“(Senate Majority Leader) Mike Bishop has said his number one priority is right to work, but he knows he does not have the support in the Legislature,” Hufnagel said. “We could see the domino effect; as Michigan goes, so goes the rest of the country.”
Labor leaders say even if there are no signature gathers at the polls this time around, the issue is not going away any time soon, and those pushing RTW see Michigan, as the home of the United Auto Workers (UAW), as a symbolic victory.
“(Senate Majority Leader) Mike Bishop has said his number one priority is right to work, but he knows he does not have the support in the legislature,” Hufnagel said. “We could see the domino effect; as Michigan goes, so goes the rest of the country.”