LANSING — As Lynn Mason rallied at the state Capitol with fellow protesters earlier this month, she could feel the passion.
The Belding woman was one of many to protest what has become commonly known as right-to-work legislation. Contrary to its name, the legislation actually addresses the right for workers to choose whether they want to join a union or pay fees that amount to union dues. The legislation prohibits “closed shops,” where workers have no choice but to join a union or pay those fees. The legislation does not apply to law enforcement employees or firefighters, who are covered under binding arbitration.
“If one has never participated in a movement like that and doesn’t really feel the passion from being there or doesn’t understand it because they’ve never participated, it was an amazing event, quite unlike what you might see on television,” Mason said. “The people were passionate, not unruly, contrary to what you might see in media coverage.”
Gov. Rick Snyder signed the legislation a week ago today after it was approved by the House and Senate. Supporters, including Republican leaders and the Michigan Chamber of Commerce, say the legislation is about freedom of association for workers and a better business climate.
State Rep. Rick Outman, R-Six Lakes, was among those who voted in favor of the legislation.
“This is about freedom,” Outman said. “Unions can still recruit members and collective bargaining is not infringed in any way. Hard-working people in the public and private sectors in Michigan can now decide if they want to join a union or not. It will no longer be mandatory to pay union dues just to keep a job.”
Critics, including Democrats and the state’s sizable labor contingent, say the real intent of the legislation is to bleed unions of money and bargaining power and allow non-union workers to get perks without paying.
The 30 or so Montcalm County union workers of Local 3067.03 are affiliated with Michigan Council No. 25 American Federation of State, County & Municipal Employees (AFSCME). Montcalm County union workers currently have a contract good from Jan. 1, 2012, through Dec. 31, 2014.
Nick Ciaramitaro, the director of legislation and public policy for Michigan Council No. 25 AFSCME, splits his time working between Detroit and Lansing.
“Right-to-work will make life more difficult in some areas, but the union movement will survive this and will continue and will grow,” Ciaramitaro said. “I think if anything it will result in a renewed interest in right-to-work among the workers themselves. They know they can’t trust in the government to protect them anymore. We’re going to have to spend more resources on mundane things rather than help folks across the board. Labor does a great deal of work to try to protect the middle class, whether they’re organized or not.
“We’ll survive this,” he added. “On the one hand, it’s going to create some serious administrative problems. On the other hand, it will make us stronger and better in the long run because we will stop relying on the law to protect us. We know we have a hostile government, so we’re going to work very hard to change the government, because that’s what you do in a democracy. In a democracy, the power belongs the people and not the legislators.”
Mason is a member of the Ionia County Board of Commissioners and recently retired as a teacher from Belding Area Schools, where she taught for 31 years and was a member of the Belding Education Association, Michigan Education Association and National Education Association.
Mason previously lobbied legislators to vote against right-to-work prior to attending the rally in Lansing.
“I tried to make a difference with my elected officials,” Mason said. “I think here in Michigan we tend to take workers’ rights pretty seriously. I think history shows lot of stories where workers stood up and stood together and even fought and died for workers’ rights. I think many people are forgetting those struggles.”
Mason said she fears the passage of right-to-work will lower the standard of living for workers and their families.
“I think workers are going to have a hard time sustaining their families if wages keep going down and rights keep disappearing,” she said. “Contrary to what our governor and some legislators might believe, I don’t think the whole thing is about rebuilding Michigan. I think it’s about silencing workers’ voices. There’s going to be less workers who pay their dues and that has a direct impact on what we call solidarity.”
Michigan is now the 24th state in the nation with a right-to-work law or similar legislation.
Despite what Mason sees as a major blow to union workers, she will continue to fight for workers’ rights.
“Once an advocate, always an advocate,” she said. “I was an advocate for educators and students when I was teaching and I continue to be an advocate now. I think we’re going to have to go through a regeneration and hopefully union workers don’t have to lose too much before they understand the need for a strong union and strong workers voices.
“I’ll keep working at it,” she said.
The Associated Press contributed to this story.