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Lansing — Six years after she rallied with right-to-work protesters at the Michigan Capitol, Democratic gubernatorial candidate Gretchen Whitmer is hoping for the chance to repeal the Republican law she calls an “assault on working people.”

Unions are preparing wish lists for Whitmer in an election year experts predict could be strong for Democrats. But efforts to roll back measures adopted under eight years of GOP rule will hinge on the minority party's long-shot goal to flip the House and Senate.

Whitmer’s 13-page plan for jobs and the economy includes a call to overturn the 2012 right-to-work law, which prohibits labor contracts from requiring non-union workers to pay fees for contract bargaining.

The law "had nothing to do with rights or work," Whitmer said in a statement.

She pledged to repeal the statute "so all working people have the freedom to negotiate together with their employers for stronger paychecks, good benefits, safe workplaces, a secure retirement and more time to spend with their families."

Republican Attorney General Bill Schuette, running for governor against Whitmer, argues the right-to-work law has provided a boost to the state economy and given blue-collar workers the “freedom” to choose whether to join or financially support a union.

“My opponent wants to take Michigan backward,” Schuette said in an interview. “That playbook, it’s going to be the failed sequel to the governorship of Jennifer Granholm. We’re not going back there.”

While the issue may be a popular talking point among candidates in the primary, it may not be as pressing for general election voters benefiting from the growing economy, said Jarrett Skorup, director of marketing and communications at the Mackinac Center for Public Policy in Midland.

“Right to work has not been repealed legislatively in any state for decades even where Democrats held control,” Skorup said.

Seen at the time as a major blow to organized labor in the state that helped give birth to the modern labor movement, the right-to-work law has not had the impact Republicans hoped, said Michigan AFL-CIO President Ron Bieber.

“Frankly I think the Republicans thought they were going to put a stake in the heart of labor and kill us off, and it’s not had that effect,” Bieber said. “It energized us.”

Federal statistics show union membership in Michigan dropped in 2014, the first full year after the law took effect in 2013, but has since rebounded. About 16.8 percent of all Michigan workers are represented by unions in 2017, compared with16.9 percent four years earlier.

Still, repealing the law is a matter of fairness, Bieber argued. Workers who benefit from collective bargaining by unions should “pay their fair share” for representation and already had the right to opt out of dues that pay for union political activities, he said.

“It’s near the top of our list — if not at the top of our list — for things we want to change when Gretchen Whitmer gets elected,” Bieber said.

Repeal faced hurdles

The former state Senate minority leader rallied with right-to-work protesters in 2012, when more than 10,000 union members and allies gathered at the Michigan Capitol. She allowed leaders to use her office as a staging ground and urged officials to open the locked-down building after a court order.

But any push to repeal right to work could face a brick wall in the state Senate, where Republicans hold 27 of 38 seats and Democrats face long odds to regain control for the first time since 1992.

Killing the law would be “horrible for labor” because the state could lose out on jobs, said state Sen. Mike Shirkey, a Clarklake Republican and the odds-on-favorite to be majority leader next term.

 “I would put every ounce of my being into making sure that doesn’t happen, for the benefit of Michigan citizens,” Shirkey said.  

Repealing right to work would be difficult and would have a decreased effect in light of the U.S. Supreme Court’s June ruling barring mandatory union fees for government employees, Mackinac Center's Skorup said.

The Supreme Court decision means a repeal of the right-to-work law would only affect private-sector unions in Michigan.

The law was one of several economic, tax and regulatory changes that may have helped improve the state’s outlook, Skorup said.

“We still would have improved economically, but I think right to work was the most significant economic change the Legislature made in the past eight years,” he said.

Other experts disagree and point toward recent ballot initiatives for paid sick leave and an increased minimum wage as signs of Michigan workers’ discontent.

“What it does signal is working people in Michigan are frustrated and the economy isn’t working as it should for them,” said Karla Walter, director of the American Worker Project at the Center for American Progress Action Fund.

Workers in right-to-work states earn approximately $1,500 less annually than workers in non-right-to-work states and have a harder time climbing into the middle class, Walter said.

But non-right-to-work states such as New York and California have a higher cost of living, "so in practical terms, workers in right-to-work states are richer," Skorup countered.

With roughly two-thirds of union workers in Michigan in the private sector, a repeal of right to work would still have a significant impact for many union employees, Walter said. But she acknowledged such a repeal would be difficult, even with a Democratic majority.

Prevailing wage fight continues

Whitmer and Schuette also disagree on a recent Republican law that repealed Michigan’s longstanding prevailing wage law for construction workers, which had guaranteed union-scale wages and benefits on public construction projects, such as roads.

Term-limited Republican Gov. Rick Snyder opposed repealing the law, arguing it would hurt efforts to encourage more workers to pursue jobs in the skilled trades.

But an association of contractors that don’t use union labor went around Snyder with a petition drive approved by lawmakers, a veto-proof move supported by Schuette.

Ending the union-rate wage requirement will save taxpayer money on government construction projects “at a time where resources are tight and how you allocate them is important,” Schuette said.

Whitmer said she supports prevailing wage laws "because they ensure that our skilled tradesmen and women get paid a fair wage for the work they do."

Unions and labor-friendly contractors dispute projected costs savings of the Republican repeal, arguing using cheaper labor could reduce construction quality and leave local governments on the hook for expensive fixes.

“It’s a transfer of wealth,” Bieber said. “All it does is take money out of the pocket of hard-working skilled members and puts it in the pockets of wealthy contractors.”

A 2015 study by the conservative Anderson Economic Group of East Lansing suggested the prevailing wage law cost Michigan school districts a combined $126.7 million a year in extra building construction costs.

Democrats who want to reinstate the wage mandate could have a tough time selling the plan to voters, said Patrick Anderson, a former deputy budget director under Republican Gov. John Engler

“It’s going to be tough to convince Michigan citizens that people who often make less than unionized construction workers should pay more to raise their wages,” Anderson said.

Candidates push jobs plans

Whitmer’s jobs plan includes an emphasis on closing the skilled trades gap. While she hasn’t detailed plans to pay for the $100 million programs, Whitmer wants to create a two-year scholarship to provide qualifying students with two years of debt-free college or skilled trades training, and a new initiative to help adults earn technical certificates.

"Every Michigander deserves a path to a high-wage skill, economic opportunity and an income that supports their family," said Whitmer, who rallied with union leaders Monday in Detroit.

Schuette, who’s campaigning on a pledge to cut income taxes, has also emphasized the need to attract more workers to the skilled trades. His plan calls for allowing schools to hire non-traditional teachers with technical expertise and supporting partnerships between schools and businesses.

Schuette spent Monday in Metro Detroit at the Franklin Labor Day Parade, Arts, Beats and Eats in Royal Oak and the Romeo Peach Festival.

He noted Michigan’s unemployment rate of 4.3 percent in July, compared with 15 percent in 2009 at the height of the great recession and 13 percent in 2010, when Republicans won control of all three branches of state government.  

“The real question is, are you better off today then you were eight years ago?" Schuette said. "And the answer is yes.”

joosting@detroitnews.com

(517) 371-3662

Twitter: @jonathanoosting

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