Now that Michigan has become a right-to-work state and emergency managers' power to void union contracts has been reinstated, the state's Republican Party is preparing a fresh salvo in their prolonged battle to diminish union power. This week, Republican state Rep. Mike Shirkey presented a law that would eliminate a union's status as the exclusive bargaining entity for employees in public sector workplaces.
"I think that is the next modernization of union worker contracts in the government sector," he told the Detroit News.
Exclusivity has been a hallmark of American labor relations since the passage of the Wagner Act in 1935. As labor historian Nelson Lichtenstein explains in State of the Union: A Century of American Labor, "the framers of the Wagner Act were determined to stamp out 'company unionism,' that is, employee organizations that were set up or dominated by management. To do so the new labor law banned any kind of management participation in or encouragement to a union, and it proscribed proportional representation, which would have allowed more than one union to represent workers in a given trade or company."
Shirkey's law would effectively end the post-Wagner status quo for public sector workers. In doing so, it would "weaken workers' power and weaken their bargaining ability in the workplace," said Joshua Pugh, a communications specialist for Progress Michigan.
"How are these employers supposed to know which bargaining units they're dealing with?" he said to msnbc.
In addition to undermining exclusivity, state Republicans are also reportedly considering legislation that would require workers to vote to recertify their union every time their collective bargaining contract term expires.
Though Michigan has long been a labor stronghold, unions in the state have seen their power degrade tremendously over the past few years. Since 2011, the administration of Republican Gov. Rick Snyder has suspended the power of the mayor and city council in municipalities across the state, and appointed emergency managers with the authority to unilaterally alter or eliminated union contracts. In December 2012, the state's lame duck Republican legislature abruptly passed a "right-to-work" law which eliminated unions' ability to automatically collect dues from the members they represent.
More recently, Michigan Republicans retaliated against Wayne State University and University of Michigan by proposing legislation that would cut millions of dollars from their budgets, after the two universities agreed to union contracts that would circumvent the new right-to-work law. Snyder's administration also instated an emergency manager in the city of Detroit, over the objections of the city council.
Shirkey, who wrote the anti-exclusivity bill, also played a role in the state's right-to-work battle. Shortly after the right-to-work legislation was passed, he told msnbc that he had had "a number of conversations with Ron Weiser," a former state party chair and one of the key advocates for right-to-work in the state. Weiser and Shirkey participated in what the latter described as a "big team effort" to get the anti-union legislation passed.
One of the members of that "big team effort," a conservative think tank known as the Mackinac Center, challenged union exclusivity rights all the way back in 1997.
"Under the doctrine of exclusivity, the interests of union officials win out over the interests of nonunion workers," senior labor policy fellow Robert P. Hunter wrote at the time.