Right-to-Work Supporters Focus on Michigan
NOAH ADAMS, host:
It's DAY TO DAY. I'm Noah Adams.
DEBORAH AMOS, host:
And I'm Deborah Amos.
This week in Detroit, the big three automakers will sit down with the United Auto Workers to haggle over contracts. But a movement is underway in Michigan that could make these negotiations a thing of the past, a potential ballot measure that could make Michigan a right-to-work state.
In the second part of our weeklong series on the auto industry, NPR's Celeste Headlee reports that union leaders are preparing for a battle.
CELESTE HEADLEE: Before you get excited, let me explain that no one thinks Michigan's legislature will pass a right-to-work statute. And Governor Jennifer Granholm has vowed to veto such a measure in the unlikely event that it ever reached her desk. But State Representative Jack Hoogendyk says that's not the end of it.
State Representative JACK HOOGENDYK (Republican, Michigan): I have no expectation that you'll see this get to the ballot through the legislative process or that any, you know, bill would be passed that would be signed by the governor. But I do think that there's a very good chance that you may see this issue come up and that the citizens will sign the petitions to put it on the ballot.
HEADLEE: Hoogendyk represents the City of Kalamazoo in the Michigan State House. He introduced right-to-work legislation in March, and in fact six similar bills had been proposed this year; none have gotten a hearing in committee. So supporters of right-to-work hope to get it on the ballot next year. And union leaders like George McGregor say they're ready.
Mr. GEORGE MCGREGOR (United Auto Workers): I want to tell you right now, we as UAW and as union members, we will fight any legislature and any politician that comes and try to make Michigan a right-to-work state. We will do all that in our powers not to let that happen.
AMOS: McGregor is the president of UAW Local 22. He says he doesn't think Michigan will ever pass a right-to-work law, and many experts agree with him. Bob Ludolph is a partner at Pepper Hamilton, specializing in labor and employment practice.
Mr. BOB LUDOLPH (Pepper Hamilton): According to the statistics I've seen, something like nearly half of the people in the state are not in favor of compulsory unionism, so it is possible that that group may be mobilized. However, I think that the union movement is a very strong one in this state and is a political force that would defeat it in the end.
HEADLEE: Ludolph says polls taken recently aren't necessary reliable, because most people don't understand the legal ramifications of right-to-work legislation.
Mr. LUDOLPH: I don't think that either side of the initiatives understand exactly what that means in terms of what the rights are, the change as a result of that. In fact, there has been very little conversation and a discussion about those issues here. I think that it's more people talking at one another about the issues.
HEADLEE: In case you don't understand it either, here it is in a nutshell. In a right-to-work state, union membership or the paying of union dues or fees can't be made a condition of employment. There are currently 22 right-to-work states, most of them in the South and the Plains. And Representative Jack Hoogendyk says adding Michigan to that list would be a major victory for the national right-to-work movement.
State Rep. HOOGENDYK: This is sort of a watershed state and a place where, you know, the big unions would fight very hard to protect what they have just because of what Michigan symbolizes.
And I would imagine that if, in fact, this issue where to go to the ballot, you would see a great deal of resources expended by union interests to protect what they have in Michigan and it would be quite a vigorous campaign.
HEADLEE: The problem is both sides can cite strong evidence to make their case. According to government statistics, right-to-work states have seen larger growth in personal income, people covered by insurance, and productivity. But overall, personal income is still higher in union states. People are more likely to have health care coverage and production is higher.
Bill Black is the legislative and government affairs director for the Michigan Teamsters. He's concerned about the possibility of a right-to-work initiative in Michigan. But he says this may also be an opportunity to remind people of why unions were formed in the first place.
Mr. BILL BLACK (Michigan Teamsters): Michigan has a deep heritage in unionism. It's the home of the UAW, home of the Teamsters, home of the modern labor movement. And I think maybe somewhat we all need awakening sometimes of what this is all about and we have it here today.
HEADLEE: Most experts agree that the current push for right-to-work legislation in Michigan has been fuelled by the struggles of the domestic automakers. They say the success or failure of such a proposal may depend in the end on what happens with the big three and Michigan's economy in the year ahead.
Celeste Headlee, NPR News, Detroit.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.