When Michigan repealed its so-called right-to-work law in March, it wasn't just a huge victory for working families in that state. It was a shot across the bow

It was the first time a state revoked a right-to-work law in nearly 60 years and a major victory for the IBEW and all unions that have fought against such laws since they were invented in 1947. These laws weaken unions by allowing workers to free-ride, enjoying the benefits of a collective bargaining agreement without contributing their share of the costs of negotiating and enforcing that contract.

Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer during her State of the State address earlier this year. The re-election of Whitmer and Democrats winning majority control of the state House and Senate set the stage for the repeal of the state’s right-to-work law and the reinstitution of prevailing wage. Flick/Creative Commons photo by Gov. Whitmer’s office.
Detroit Local 17 was among the groups protesting when the Michigan Legislature passed a right-to-work law in 2012.
Bay City, Mich., Local 692 Membership Development Director Brian Klele, left, with his father, Mike, a Local 692 retiree. Brian testified before a Senate committee about the benefits of working construction as a union member.

"What an absolutely great day for the IBEW and especially our members in Michigan," International President Kenneth W. Cooper said. "I wish I could personally thank each and every one of them who worked to make this a reality. I salute the state legislators who stood with us and especially Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, who has been a friend of working families.

"But this is just a 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."

Whitmer also signed into law a bill that reinstates prevailing wage laws on public projects. Prevailing wage laws require wages to be paid at fair market value, whether the work is done by union or nonunion workers. They also ensure the work is high quality and on time, and often done by local contractors.

Restoring Workers' Rights

Michigan is the first state to repeal such a law since 1965, when Indiana did so, although it passed a new one in 2012 that remains in effect. The only other state to repeal a right-to-work law was New Hampshire in 1949. There are now 26 states with such a law.

Supporters of these laws paint them as giving employees a choice, but they are intended to suppress the power of working families, not to mention their wages and benefits.

From the beginning, they've proven to be a popular way for state legislatures to strike back against the influence of unions — and, in the 21st century, they have been a primary tool for Republicans to do so.

The GOP passed and Republican governors signed into law right-to-work bills in Indiana, Kentucky, West Virginia and Wisconsin soon after Republicans took complete control of state government.

That is changing. Voters in conservative Missouri took advantage of a clause in the state constitution that allowed a referendum on the issue. They voted down by a 2-1 margin a right-to-work law previously approved by the GOP-dominated Legislature. Attempts to pass right-to-work laws in New Hampshire and Montana — two other states where the GOP controls all levers of state government — have failed.

A Gallup poll taken last year found that 71% of respondents approved of unions, the highest since 1965. Americans elected a pro-union president in Joe Biden, who has made organized labor a part of his signature legislation, such as the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law.

Then in March came the news from Michigan. Union membership in the state dropped from 16% among the non-management workforce to 13% during the decade after right-to-work became law. Perhaps even more telling, the percentage of workers enjoying the benefits of a collective bargaining agreement but paying nothing toward it increased from 3.5% to 14%.

"Today, we are coming together to restore workers' rights, protect Michiganders on the job, and grow Michigan's middle class," Whitmer said.

How the Fight Was Won

IBEW and union members packed the state Capitol in Lansing during the House and Senate votes and also during committee hearings.

They included Jeannette Bradshaw, recording secretary and registrar for Detroit Local 58, who testified in favor of prevailing wage laws before a House committee on March 8. She reminded legislators that the higher wages will help retain skilled construction workers. Michigan, like the rest of the United States, has faced a shortage of them for years.

"As more people move into the building and construction industry, shouldn't we be paying those workers for the training and expertise they have, regardless of whether or not they're represented by a union?" Bradshaw asked the committee.

IBEW members volunteered to help reelect Whitmer and flip the Legislature to Democratic control last November. It was the first time Democrats held the Legislature and governor's mansion since 1984. But the hard work started long before that.

Republicans controlled the Michigan Legislature and the state had a Republican governor in Rick Snyder when right-to-work was passed into law in 2012 and when prevailing wage laws were repealed in 2018.

They had that power in part due to gerrymandered legislative maps. The IBEW and other unions helped get out the vote for a successful ballot initiative in 2018 that turned redistricting over to an independent commission, taking it away from partisan legislators. That took away many of the advantages anti-union legislators had gerrymandered into the process.

"Having the ability to have competitive districts throughout the state allowed us to have the success that we did," said Michigan Political Director Joe Davis, a member of Lansing Local 352.

Davis said it was crucial to get the right-to-work repeal and the reinstitution of prevailing wage laws finished before the General Assembly went on a two-week spring break beginning March 27. Democrats hold just a 20-18 advantage in the Senate and 56-54 in the House. No Republicans crossed the aisle to vote for either the right-to-work repeal or prevailing wage law legislation.

"In the world we live in now, it's a never-ending campaign cycle," Davis said. "The further you go into that two-year legislative calendar, the less opportunity there is to get anything done. By the summer, people are talking about getting ready for next year and getting ready for their primaries."

Sixth District International Vice President Michael Clemmons, whose district includes Michigan, also celebrated the news.

"We're ecstatic and excited Gov. Whitmer and the Legislature reversed what Gov. Snyder and his group of folks did and returned Michigan back to the workers' rights state it's always been," Clemmons said.

"It's been a long, hard fight. The IBEW pours a lot of time and resources into political races, and this is a prime example of why we do that. When you elect pro-worker politicians, this is what happens."

For IBEW members in Michigan employed in construction, the restoration of prevailing wage laws is as significant as the right-to-work repeal, Clemmons said.

"Enacting prevailing wage ensures our members are paid a fair wage for a fair day's work," he said. "It stops the trend of trying to force wages and benefits downwards by some of our construction competitors.

"You look at states that have prevailing wage laws and they have safer work conditions and higher wages and benefits for construction workers. That is taxpayer money. When you use taxpayer money on a project in Michigan, the Michiganders working on that project should expect the safest working conditions and be compensated fairly."

Indeed.com, one of the nation's leading employment websites, found that 14 of the top 15 states for construction worker pay all had prevailing wage laws. They weren't all high-cost East Coast states, either.

Minnesota, which is also in the Sixth District, was No. 1. Others on the list included Oregon, Illinois, Ohio and Missouri. The one outlier was Wisconsin, which came in at 13th-highest-paying but repealed prevailing wage in 2017.

The Battles Ahead

Many Democratic leaders in Michigan pledged to repeal right-to-work and reinstitute prevailing wage if they gained control of the Legislature. Davis said it was obvious during the party's state conference in Detroit earlier this year that coalition was holding.

"No one should be surprised that we are in this moment," Whitmer said in an interview with The New York Times. "We've done what we've said we were going to do, and we're going to continue to live up to the promise we made to people and live our values."

Michigan Lt. Gov. Garlin Gilchrist, center, with leaders from Ann Arbor Local 252 and the state AFL-CIO. From left, former Local 252 Business Representative Ron Motsinger, Assistant Business Manager Dave Bianco, Michigan AFL-CIO Secretary-Treasurer Daryl Newman, Sixth District International Representative Tim Hutchins and Local 252 Business Manager Ryan Husse

Or as Senate Majority Leader Winnie Banks told the Associated Press: "It's a new day here in Lansing."

Like Cooper, Clemmons also thanked all IBEW members for their work in getting the bills passed into law. They've earned the right to celebrate.

But the battles will go on, including in Michigan, he said.

"It is imperative we keep our majorities in Michigan," Clemmons said. "We see what happens when we do. We have a huge victory today but have to ensure those majorities in the Legislature and keeping the governor's mansion going forward."

The next battle may come in Wisconsin, which has a strong union tradition and only recently passed a right-to-work law, just like Michigan.

Even though the number of Democrats and Republicans in the state is roughly equal, the GOP used gerrymandered maps to solidify nearly total control of the Legislature. That, along with the election of a fiercely anti-union governor in Scott Walker, led to the passage of a right-to-work law in 2015.

But there is hope. Walker was defeated in his attempt for a third term by current Gov. Tony Evers in 2018. Union supporters also will have a 4-3 advantage on the state Supreme Court following the election of Janet Protasiewicz. That could lead to changes in the gerrymandered districts.

Another challenge for those fighting against right-to-work is to convince legislators in states that have had the laws for generations — such as Nevada and Virginia — to change them. Neither had a serious attempt to do so even when Democrats had control of the Legislature and the governor's mansion.

Those battles are in the future. For now, the IBEW and its many allies can celebrate the victory in Michigan and the better times that are ahead.

"Unions made Michigan a hub of American business and an engine of America's middle class," President Joe Biden said on Twitter. "A strong middle class benefits everyone. Michigan is leading as a great place to be a worker and a great place to do business."