Michigan Dems advance pro-union reforms with an eye toward Nov. election

Rep. Andy Levin at "Solidarity Sunday" at the General Motors Detroit-Hamtramck assembly plant, Sept. 22, 2019 | Andrew Roth

WASHINGTON — Buried under news about the Iowa caucuses, the president’s State of the Union address and the end of the impeachment trial is an upcoming vote on what could be the most significant labor reform legislation in a generation.

The U.S. House bill would strengthen protections for workers who organize for higher wages, better benefits and safer working conditions. Importantly, it would bolster embattled unions in Michigan and across the country.

The measure, known as the Protecting the Right to Organize Act, has 218 House co-sponsors and is expected to pass this week. 

It is “our most profound opportunity to change our economy to the benefit of working people,” U.S. Rep. Andy Levin (D-Bloomfield Twp.) — a former union organizer and one of the bill’s lead sponsors — told the Michigan Advance in an interview.

Rashida Tlaib
U.S. Rashida Tlaib at the Detroit NAACP dinner | Andrew Roth

U.S. Rep. Rashida Tlaib, a Detroit Democrat, echoed the sentiment, calling it “incredibly transformative” for workers.

The bill has the support of the state’s seven House Democrats. None of its six Republicans has signed on; nor has its lone independent, Justin Amash of Cascade Township. 

Michigan Democratic U.S. Sens. Debbie Stabenow of Lansing and Gary Peters of Bloomfield Township back a companion measure in the Senate.

U.S. Sens. Debbie Stabenow and Gary Peters at the NAACP dinner | Andrew Roth

The bill isn’t likely to become law anytime soon, given GOP control of the Senate and White House. But that doesn’t deter its backers. 

Tlaib called it an “organizing tool” that can communicate “what can be possible.”

Levin agreed: It’s the “perfect illustration of why we need … a U.S. Senate and a president who are really interested in lifting up the working people of this country.” 

Richard Trumka, president of the AFL-CIO, a powerful coalition of unions, called for passage of the bill in testimony before a House subcommittee last year. 

“The PRO Act would do many important things, chief among them provide more substantial relief for workers whose rights have been violated … ensure a process for reaching a first contract once a union is recognized … and create a true deterrent, so employers think twice before violating the law.”

Business groups oppose the bill, which they say would destabilize workplaces, gut the gig economy and nullify Right to Work laws across the country. 

Levin touts support for national pro-union legislation

In 2012, Michigan — the birthplace of the UAW — made international news by enacting a RTW law under GOP then-Gov. Rick Snyder. That came after decades of business groups working for the anti-labor policy and was pushed by the DeVos family, of whom President Trump’s Education secretary, Betsy DeVos, is a member.

“The proposal … is a litany of almost every failed idea from the past 30 years of labor policy,” the U.S. Chamber of Commerce stated when the PRO bill was introduced last year. It “would undermine worker rights, ensnare employers in unrelated labor disputes, disrupt the economy and force individual Americans to pay union dues regardless of their wishes.”

Some House Republicans have slammed the effort as a “union boss wish list.” 

And U.S. Rep. Tim Walberg, a Tipton Republican who said he was once a union worker, said “today’s workers deserve better than what this radical legislation has to offer.” 

Nationwide, about 10% of the nation’s wage and salary workers are members of unions, according to the latest data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Public sector workers are much more likely to join unions than private sector workers, and membership rates are higher among black people, men and full-time workers.

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The percentage of unionized workers is higher in Michigan, though the state has seen a sharp decline in union membership since recent decades, dropping from 26% in 1989 to less than 14% of the state’s 4.3 million workers last year. 

Some credit the decline to a 2012 Right to Work law barring Michigan workers from being required to join unions, but they still receive benefits won in contract negotiations and representation in employment matters. 

It also comes as heavily unionized sectors, such as manufacturing, transportation and public utilities, make up a smaller portion of the economy than they did in the past.

At least two Michigan Republicans — Walberg and U.S. Rep. Paul Mitchell (R-Dryden) — back federal Right to Work legislation.

At the federal level, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2018 that unions representing government workers could not force non-members to pay union fees, even though they might be affected by union negotiations. The decision closed off a key source of union revenue.

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A surge in union membership? 

Levin says the Wolverine State, once a hotbed of union activity, would see a surge in union membership if the House bill were to become law. 

A core provision would create meaningful penalties for corporations that violate worker rights or misclassify independent contractors.

Enacted in 1935, the National Labor Relations Act protects workers’ rights to unionize and collectively bargain but does not carry stiff enough penalties for employers who violate their rights through termination, threats or other forms of retaliation, according to Celine McNicholas, director of government affairs and labor counsel at the Economic Policy Institute (EPI), a Washington-based think tank.

Employers may receive orders to “cease-and-desist” illegal activities or be required to notify workers of their rights under the law, and those who fire workers for union support may be liable for back pay. But those remedies aren’t strong enough to deter illegal activity, McNicholas said. 

As it stands now, workers essentially have union rights “in name only” and, as a result, violations are common — and effective at suppressing unionization, she added. 

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“A law is only as good as the teeth it has,” she said. “This bill would go a long way in correcting that.”

Levin agreed: “Basically, workers are not free to form unions in this country.”  

The bill would also strengthen collective bargaining rights; create mediation and arbitration processes between corporations and newly formed unions; streamline federal labor relations procedures and more. 

Such provisions would raise wages, increase access to supports that provide paid leave, health care coverage, and retirement savings, and create safer working conditions, according to EPI. Average workers covered by union contracts earn 13 percent more than those with similar backgrounds in non-unionized workplaces, and they are more likely to have employer-sponsored health insurance, paid vacation, sick leave, retirement plans and safer workplaces. 

At the same time, the bill would also roll back some of Trump’s regulatory changes that “have really tilted the advantage to employers who cheat their workers,” said U.S. Rep. Mark Pocan, a Wisconsin Democrat who backs the bill.

Since 2016, the Trump administration has effectively killed a rule that deprived millions of people of overtime pay, gutted protections for tipped servers, rolled back protections for worker pay and safety, sided with corporations in a case involving forced arbitration agreements and more, according to EPI.

Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer has ordered an overtime rule that exceeds the Trump administration standard.

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Levin said the bill would lead to a “blossoming” for worker rights, allowing more Michiganders to pursue key elements of the American dream, such as earning a college degree, buying a house and starting a family.

Ultimately, he said, it would raise the standard of living for the working class and narrow the growing wealth and income divide. 

Tlaib agreed. The economy may be working well for massive corporations and wealthy individuals, she said, but it leaves behind everyone else. The House bill, she said, would restore fairness to the system. “Inequality and economic instability for so many is not a natural product of a functioning government. … It’s the result of policy choices.”

Advance Editor Susan J. Demas contributed to this story.