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Lutz: Democrats in Lansing must advance these pro-worker policies | Labor Voices


So the pendulum swings. In just over a month, Democrats in Lansing will take control of Michigan’s Legislature and, with it, the chance to govern in ways they have been denied for 40 years. The reasons for this tectonic shift — Republican overreach on abortion rights, the effectiveness of the citizen-led independent redistricting commission in replacing partisan gerrymanders with fairly drawn maps and Democrats campaigning on working-family issues — are frankly less important and less interesting at this point than what Democrats will do with the gavel once they have it. 

Already, though, those who for decades have had their interests well served by Lansing Republicans are urging restraint. In their view, issues once forced through the Legislature, often in a deeply divisive manner, should simply be left alone now that their standard bearers are out of power. These same interests, beneficiaries of largely one-party control of the Capitol, now attempt to cast efforts by Democrats to swing the balance of power back in the direction of working people as overly partisan, or worse, an attempt to dismiss them as simple payback to Democrat’s donors.

Three issues at the top of the Democrat’s agenda include restoring prevailing wage for public projects, eliminating the pension tax and repealing the so-called “right-to-work” law. Let’s look at each in turn. 

Until repealed by Republicans in 2015, Michigan’s prevailing wage policy ensured that workers on publicly funded projects received fair pay based on negotiated standard wages in a given area. The pitch at the time boiled down to paying workers less to save taxpayers money. Only that didn’t happen. Instead, it has been shown time and again that repealing prevailing wage does little to reduce construction costs because workers who are paid less are less productive, turn over more frequently and are therefore less likely to be trained and highly skilled.

Restoring prevailing wage would go a long way to help prevent the exploitation of workers on the taxpayer’s dime while protecting the value of every dollar spent on public projects. That explains why efforts to erode federal prevailing wage policy continue to fail, like in 2012 when 58 Republicans joined Democrats to defeat a repeal effort. And that is why Democrats should restore Michigan’s prevailing wage policy in 2023. 

Back in 2011, Republicans led by Rick Snyder cut taxes for big business while imposing a new tax on retiree pensions, taking a bite out of the fixed incomes seniors worked a lifetime to earn. Legislative Republicans have only dug in on that position in recent years, refusing to roll back the tax even as budget surpluses have grown. But this shouldn’t be a partisan issue when Democrats make good on their long-standing promise to repeal the tax next year. 

Finally, we come to the so-called “right to work.” A misleading name for a poor and vindictive policy, "right to work" purports to give workers a voice. In reality, all it does and was designed to do is divide workers and drive down union membership to benefit corporate interests by depriving unions of the resources they need to advocate for their members effectively.

And it worked. According to Bureau of Labor and Statistics data, the state's right-to-work law reduced union membership in Michigan to a historic low of 13.3%. As I discussed last month, this dramatically and negatively impacts Michigan workers as union workers earn 10.2% more than their non-union counterparts (more than $1.2 million more in earnings over a career). 

Repealing the right-to-work law is a good policy for working families in Michigan and Democrats are right to prioritize action to do just that. 

Regardless of what opponents say, taking action on these issues should be non-controversial. Democrats should be no more timid to take action on behalf of the men and women who elected them than the Republicans who held power before. I am confident that addressing these and other issues on behalf of working families will put Democrats on the path to holding the majority beyond 2024. 

Tom Lutz is the executive secretary-treasurer of the Michigan Regional Council of Carpenters and Millwrights, which represents more than 14,000 carpenters, millwrights, floor-layers and piledrivers across the state.

Labor Voices

Labor Voices columns are written on a rotating basis by United Auto Workers President Ray Curry, Michigan Education Association President Paula Herbart, Michigan Regional Council of Carpenters and Millwrights Executive Secretary-Treasurer Tom Lutz and selected Service Employees International Union members.