RTW, Prevailing Wage Reversal Clear House
March 14, 2023
Article courtesy MIRS News for SBAM’s Lansing Watchdog e-newsletter
A repeal of the state’s 10-year-old Right to Work law and the restoration of the prevailing wage law on public construction projects shot out of a House committee and passed the House Wednesday on straight, 56-53 party-line votes.
Democratic legislators pushed out the bills to “restore the balance in negotiations” between owners and workers and give “unions their rights back” after Republican majorities instituted these “worker freedom” reforms during the Gov. Rick Snyder years.
On their face, HB 4004 and HB 4005 would scrap the ability for workers to refuse to join a union or pay fees to cover the costs of union negotiators in both the public and private workplace. HB 4007 brings back a requirement that construction workers on state government projects be paid the standard wage of similar projects in the same geographical area.
Functionally, the Right the Work repeal would only impact the private sector workers, however, because the 2018 U.S. Supreme Court decision in Janus bans any requirement that public worker sectors must pay union dues or any collective bargaining fees as a condition of employment.
Symbolically, all three bills can be seen as political payback for union leaders, who were humiliated when business leaders pushed Republicans to pass Right to Work and a prevailing wage repeal. The bills were organized labor’s chance to flex its collective muscle through the Democrats who support them.
Once the first bill, HB 4004, passed on the predictable 56-53 vote, the House gallery packed with union members exploded in applause.
“Let’s pay our debt back to our unions by voting yes on this bill package,” said House Labor Committee Chair Jim Haadsma (D-Battle Creek).
A $1 million appropriation was added to HB 4004, HB 4005, and HB 4007 to make the bills referendum proof, although the technical explanation was that the money was needed to educate the public on the change. This type of expenditure was added to the original Right to Work bills and prevailing wage repeal bills for the same stated and practical reasons.
However, when she ran for governor, Gretchen Whitmer said she would not sign policy legislation that included a gratuitous appropriation. She took it a step further when she signed Executive Directive 2019-7, which reads “I intend to veto legislation that circumvents the right to a referendum.”
Asked if there were concerns with this provision in the bill, Whitmer spokesperson Bobby Leddy said, “We support restoring workers’ rights, and will be watching the legislation closely as it continues to move through the legislature.”
Both Democrats and Republicans vaguely and directly referenced conflicting election results, poll numbers and studies to buttress their arguments that the policies they were advocating would better the state. They both say their position would save the state money, either through a better work project that saves money over time or by directly cutting the costs of a project.
“Right to Work was never about freedom. It was about control,” said Rep. Regina Weiss (D-Oak Park), the bill sponsor. “It is a law to rob us of our civil rights and our jobs rights. Its purpose is to destroy labor.”
“Everybody in here respects union workers. I respect non-union workers. But I know that these bills will not make Michigan a more competitive, stronger state and nobody wants to keep more of your hard-earned dollars in your pocket than I do,” said Rep. Graham Filler (R-St. Johns).
Slip Up Postpones Vote
In the excitement of the Democrats reversing Right to Work Wednesday on the House floor, House Majority Floor Leader Abraham Aiyash (D-Hamtramck) accidently skipped HB 4007
on the Third Reading calendar and moved to consider HB 4138. He attempted to get back to HB 4007 on the agenda by passing HB 4138 temporarily.
Instead, Aiyash made a motion to pass HB 4138 for the day, which Speaker Pro Tem Laurie Pohutsky (D-Livonia) gaveled through automatically. House Clerk Rick Brown, visibly upset, slammed the brakes on the proceedings and the Democratic leadership powwowed on the matter.
The issue is that House Rule 57 reads “A motion to postpone indefinitely having been decided shall not be subject to reconsideration.”
After about a 15-minute delay, Aiyash ended up making a motion that his “pass the day” motion be reconsidered, which drew howls from Republicans, but it passed nonetheless.
At that point, HB 4007 was brought up for consideration and the train was put back on the track. Asked by MIRS if the procedural fix violated Rule 57, Brown noted that Aiyash moved that the bill be passed “for the day,” not “indefinitely.”
Like on the floor, all of the Republican amendments offered to the bills failed in committee on party-line votes.
Rep. Tom Kunse (R-Clare) offered a substitute to the bill that would have eliminated the ability for non-union workers to “freeload” off what was bargained with union members. However, Democrats struck down the sub since it would have kept Right to Work in place.
The amendment failed, but it came after Jimmy Greene, the outgoing CEO and President of ABC Michigan turned some heads among the union-heavy attendees in the committee room when he said “I don’t believe anybody should benefit from collective bargaining agreements should they choose to leave the unions. I’ve always been supportive of that.”
In committee, Rep. Mike Mueller (R-Linden) abstained on both Right to Work bills and Rep. Doug Wozniak (R-Shelby Township) abstained on one of the Right to Work bills. The Republicans all voted against the prevailing wage restoration.
“I don’t think it’s good for the state if every time you switch power, you’re switching from non-Right to Work to Right to Work,” Mueller said. “We need consistency and compromise.”
Just the Facts, Ma’am
Wozniak and Kunse repeatedly asked testifiers in committee to supply facts to support their position on repealing Right to Work.
In response, polling showing support for repealing Right to Work came up. That poll came from a Dec. 6-7 survey of 763 Michigan voters from Public Policy Polling, sponsored by Progress Michigan. When asked if they support repealing the right to work laws, 42% were either strongly or somewhat supportive and 26% were either strongly or somewhat opposed.
Kunse repeatedly pressed Rep. Brenda Carter (D-Pontiac) to back up her assertion that taxpayers would save money from repealing prevailing wage. Her point was that workers paid a prevailing wage are bound to do better work resulting in better-constructed projects.
“Do you expect this committee to believe that paying higher wages lowers the price of a project?” Kunse asked Carter. “How could that possibly be true?”
“It is true,” Carter said.
“You have no information. I can quote things out of the air, also. But do you have any type of information saying that paying more means we’re paying less?” Kunse responded.
“I did cite it in my testimony,” responded Carter, who promised to get Kunse a copy of the studies she was referring to. The Economic Policy Institute is among the think tanks that has questioned whether there is any real cost savings to repealing prevailing wage.
Janus Likely Neutralized Impact of Public Right to Work Repeal
Presuming the public Right to Work repeal is signed into law, there would be no immediate practical impact for public sector workers due to the Janus v. AFSCME decision of 2018 that bans the mandatory collection of fees from non-union members, said Patrick Wright of the Mackinac Center for Public Policy.
Unions would still rather have HB 4004 on the books if Janus is ever overturned, but in the meantime, Wright said the only thing that would come out of the new law would be possible confusion among employees.
“If someone were not a labor lawyer, they might be misled,” he said. “I would hope that no labor organizers would mislead them, but this could cause confusion.”