More than two-thirds of Michigan state employees won’t be covered by laws that prohibit paying union dues as a condition of employment, according to an official who controls worker rules and a union lawyer.
The so-called right-to-work laws passed and signed Dec. 11 don’t supersede the Michigan Civil Service Commission’s authority, said commissioner Robert Swanson. Of the state’s 49,000 workers, about 35,000 would be exempt, according to the commission’s annual report.
“Our position is the right-to-work laws don’t apply to unionized state employees,” said lawyer Georgi-Ann Bargamian, assistant to Cindy Estrada, a United Auto Workers vice president in Detroit. The UAW represents about 17,000 state employees.
The assertion was part of the fallout from the law’s enactment, which labor leaders called a Republican attempt to bust unions and supporters called a victory for liberty and economic growth. Michigan became the 24th state to pass such a measure, approving one for public workers and one for private. Last year, about 17.5 percent of the state’s 3.8 million workers belonged to unions, according to the U.S. Department of Labor.
Michigan’s constitution gives the Civil Service Commission power over employees’ compensation and conditions. The new laws don’t nullify that, said Swanson, a commissioner appointed by former Democratic Governor Jennifer Granholm.
“That’s my interpretation,” he said in a telephone interview.
Swanson said only the commission could vote to free state workers from paying union dues. Swanson and two other commissioners were appointed by Granholm. The fourth was appointed by Republican Governor Rick Snyder, whose endorsement of the legislation after initially taking a neutral stance helped trigger the laws’ passage.
“Our position is the freedom-to-work legislation covers all public employees in Michigan,” said Sara Wurfel, a spokeswoman for Snyder. “To the extent there are legal issues concerning whether or not the legislation covers state employees, those will be resolved in the course of time as the legislation is implemented and contracts come up for renegotiation.”
The new laws exempt police and firefighters. Snyder said they are treated differently because of a separate law that requires binding arbitration to settle their labor disputes, rather than strikes or other actions.
The measures won’t take effect until 90 days after the end of the legislative term, typically around Dec. 30. They won’t affect employees under existing contracts. The state workers’ contract runs through December 2013.
Snyder signed the laws Dec. 11 over protests by thousands at the Capitol in Lansing, spurring vows of revenge by Democrats.
Businesses already are giving Michigan a new look as a place to invest, said Mike Finney, president and chief executive of the Michigan Economic Development Corporation. He said site selectors who recruit businesses were pleased.
“In the last three or four days, and in the last 24 hours, they said, ‘Wow, we think this will be favorable news to share with our clients,’” Finney said.
Neighboring Indiana enacted a right-to-work law in February, and it became an argument for supporters of Michigan’s version. Snyder said Indiana has become a hotbed of economic activity, and he wanted the same.
A study by the Economic Policy Institute, a Washington- based nonprofit policy research organization that says it gets 29 percent of its funding from unions, argued that it’s too early to conclude the law has influenced corporate decisions to move to Indiana.
The report questions claims by the Indiana Economic Development Corporation that the law motivated four companies to do business in the state, saying that all were already based there. The report also said four companies left Indiana since the law was adopted.
“To the extent that Indiana has seen job growth, it likely reflects national trends rather than state statute,” the report concludes.
Michigan Democrats and union allies said they would use the issue against Republicans, whom they accused of ramming the bills through the legislature without public hearings.
Republicans’ 64-46 advantage in the House of Representatives will shrink to 59-51 in January. Republicans will continue to hold a 26-12 advantage in the Senate.
“More Democrats are coming in the new session, and in two more years, we’ll get a few more to overturn it -- that’s going to be our goal,” said Joe Sukkar, 44, a millwright from Shelby Township in suburban Detroit. He was among an estimated 11,000 who demonstrated at the Capitol on Dec. 11.
His union, the Michigan Regional Council of Carpenters and Millwrights, endorsed Snyder in the 2010 campaign.
Mike Jackson, who heads the 15,000-member organization, said Snyder broke a verbal commitment to prevent the bill from reaching his desk.
“Where I grew up, that’s a lie,” Jackson said.
To contact the editor responsible for this story: Stephen Merelman at email@example.com