A member of Saginaw Local 557 looks on from the gallery as the Michigan Senate prepares to repeal the state’s right-to-work law.

The Michigan Senate took a big step toward restoring workers’ rights in the state on March 14, when it voted to repeal the state’s right-to-work law and restore project labor agreements on public projects.

A sign posted by Detroit Local 17 during a 2012 rally to protest Michigan passing a right-to-work law at that time. IBEW members throughout the state have worked in the decade since to get it repealed.
Flickr/Creative Commons photo by Joshua Eller.

The Michigan House passed a similar package of three bills on March 8. The Senate made changes to two of them, so they will be sent back to the House for a final vote.

But that is considered a mere formality. The House is expected to approve them in the next few days, and they will be sent to Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, who has pledged to sign them.

Michigan will beome just the third state to repeal a right-to-work law and the first in nearly six decades. Indiana repealed its right-to-work law in 1965, although it passed a new one in 2012 that remains in effect. New Hampshire repealed its right-to-work law in 1949, and attempts to reinstitute it have failed since.

“I thank our Michigan members who voted for candidates that made this happen,” International President Kenneth W. Cooper said. “This is a sign of what is possible when we elect public officials who support our values. I look forward to celebrating when right to work is officially repealed and PLAs are reinstituted.”

The Senate voted 20-17 to approve the bills, and like in the House, it was strictly along party lines, with Democrats all voting yes and Republicans voting no.

“Today, we are showing the world that Michigan is not only where we make things and build things, it’s where the people who do so are respected,” state Sen. Darren Camilleri of Trenton said, according to the Detroit News.

Democrats gained control of the Michigan House and Senate in last November’s election, giving them control of both the legislature and the governor’s mansion for the first time since 1984. The state has had had a right-to-work law since 2013 — after the GOP-controlled legislature forced the law through without the normal committee hearings — and it repealed its PLA law in 2018.

Jeannette Bradshaw, registrar for Detroit Local 58, testified in favor of the project labor agreement laws before a House committee on March 8, reminding legislators that the higher pay will help retain skilled construction workers. Michigan, like the rest of the United States, has faced a shortage of skilled construction workers for years.

“As more people move into the building and construction industry, shouldn’t we pay those workers for the training and expertise they have, regardless of whether or not they’re represented by a union?” she said.

Right-to-work laws incentivize workers to reap the benefits of a collectively bargained agreement without contributing their share of the costs of negotiating or enforcing that agreement. Supporters have dubiously painted these laws as a matter of choice, but they are routinely used to squash the power of working families and drive down wages and benefits.

Project labor agreements ensure that workers on publicly funded projects are paid at the fair market value. They ensure good, family-supporting wages for workers and that work is finished on time and at a high level. They apply to both union and non-union workers.

Right-wing and corporate interests have used the repeal of project labor agreements to undercut the wages for construction workers. They also put public projects at increased risk of not being done on time, leading to increased costs.

The Michigan House chamber was packed with union members and their allies during the vote. They broke into applause afterward.

“The votes being taken in Lansing are a huge victory for working people, and I look forward to congratulating Gov. Whitmer when she signs these important bills later this month,” Cooper said. “But this is just the start. Let this be a message to all the states still putting up roadblocks to fair wages and fair representation for working people. We’re watching, and we’re not stopping with Michigan.”