On December 11, 2012, Michigan became the 24th state to enact “right-to-work” legislation. Right-to-work legislation prohibits “compulsory unionism” by declaring invalid so-called “union security” or “closed shop” clauses in collective bargaining agreements. Such contract provisions are commonplace in union-negotiated labor contracts in states without right-to-work legislation, and they operate to compel union membership by providing that membership and payment of union dues is a condition of employment, either before or after hiring. State right-to-work laws declare such provisions to be unlawful.

Two separate right-to-work bills, for public and private workers, rapidly progressed through the Michigan legislature. H.B. 4003 covers public-sector workers but exempts police officers and firefighters from coverage, while H.B. 4054/S.B.116 covers private-sector workers. Although Republican Governor Rick Snyder previously stated that right-to-work legislation was not on his agenda, the governor promptly signed the new bills into law.  

The public-sector right-to-work legislation may face legal challenges on equal protection grounds because it exempts police officers and firefighters from coverage. Similar challenges were mounted in response to Wisconsin legislation that limited public-sector employees’ collective bargaining rights while also exempting police and firefighters.  

The right-to-work legislation follows Michigan voters’ rejection in the recent November elections of an initiative to amend the state’s constitution to protect workers’ collective bargaining rights. Twenty-three states, most of which are in the southern and western United States, have enacted rightto- work legislation.  

Last February, Indiana became the first state in the rust-belt to enact right-to-work legislation. States that recently considered and rejected right-to-work laws include New Hampshire in 2011 and Colorado in 2008. In addition, national right-to-work legislation was introduced in the United States Congress in 2011 and 2012, but it has not come up for a vote. In 2012, right-to-work oriented legislation and referenda were introduced in Alaska, Maine, Montana, New Hampshire, New Jersey, and West Virginia.  

The Michigan legislation is significant because of the state’s historical stature as a power base for labor unions. Organized labor, and the United Auto Workers in particular (the UAW was formed in Detroit in 1935 and remains headquartered there), is expected to mount a no-holds-barred challenge to the laws. President Obama, too, has denounced Republican lawmakers in Michigan for pursuing right-to-work initiatives.