In 2012, Michigan became the 24th state to enact a right-to-work (RTW) law.1 The legislation, enshrined in Michigan Public Act 348, stunned many.2 In a state reliant on manufacturing and boasting a strong union presence, it was mystifying that the Michigan Legislature would boldly pursue such controversial legislation. Adding to the controversy was the fact that the measure was rushed through both the Michigan House and Senate, providing little opportunity for legislative reflection and public input.3
Fast forward to 2023, and RTW laws remain a polarizing issue in Michigan — so much so that one of the first orders of business for the Democratic-led Legislature was repealing the 2012 RTW laws by passing Michigan Public Act 8,4 making Michigan the first state in nearly 60 years to abolish its RTW laws.5
Michigan’s tug of war over RTW serves as the inspiration for this article. When the RTW legislation passed in 2012, I wondered what lawmakers hoped to achieve by enacting the law. Was it simply to weaken organized labor as some suggested?6 Or was it to “give workers more choice” and encourage economic growth, as others suggested?7 With these questions in mind, I set out to explore the legislative history of the 2012 act to better understand what lawmakers intended when passing this law.
LEGISLATIVE HISTORY: THE QUEST FOR INTENT
Using legislative history materials to ascertain intent is particularly tricky, especially at the state level. Unlike federal legislative history documentation, the breadth and depth of state legislative history materials is scant and, not surprisingly, the range and accessibility of legislative history materials varies from state to state. When researching Michigan legislative history, a good starting point is consulting a research guide, which will list categories of legislative history documentation and access points for finding these materials (selected guides are noted below).8
Additionally, when attempting to discern intent, there’s a chance that the intended outcome of the legislation may not be documented in official records. As such, it’s important to moderate expectations when approaching a state legislative history research project.
SUMMARY OF STRATEGY AND FINDINGS
In this section, I’ve used Michigan’s 2012 RTW law to serve as a framework for demonstrating the peculiarities inherent in researching state legislative history materials and how those peculiarities can impact what a researcher might find.9
Research Steps and Strategy
When I began my research into 2012 PA 348, I knew that background materials would be meager given how quickly the legislation was passed,10 but I expected to at least find a summary bill analysis, multiple versions of bills for comparison purposes, and possibly relevant entries from the Michigan House and Senate journals. My suspicions were confirmed when I reviewed the landing page for 2011 SB 116.11 There, I found four versions of the bill, one summary bill analysis, and multiple references to entries in the House and Senate journals. I opted not to review the House and Senate committee archives, because the committees had been discharged and did not hold public hearings.12
What I Found
The bill analysis serves as one of the most authoritative sources for discovering legislative intent, and its level of detail significantly affects the amount of contextual information available to a researcher. The Michigan House and Senate fiscal agencies produce two types of analysis — a summary analysis and a detailed analysis. A summary analysis provides a concise description of the bill, including its fiscal impact. A detailed analysis describes the problem being addressed by the bill, arguments for and against it, and its fiscal impact.
Unfortunately, only a summary analysis was drafted for SB 116, which didn’t provide the desired background information.13 I moved on to the House and Senate journals.
The House and Senate journals lack complete transcripts of proceedings, making them a less reliable source for determining legislative intent. However, they include no-vote explanations, which were helpful in my investigation of SB 116. Specifically, the House Journal included detailed statements from members explaining their opposition to the legislation.14 These no-vote explanations provided insight into the perceived motivations for this measure.
Finally, I reviewed the various versions of the bills and discovered that the original version of SB 116 authorized creation of RTW zones within municipality boundaries, which is markedly different from the final version establishing statewide RTW laws.15
Not finding much in the official legislative record, I broadened my research to encompass news sources and scholarly publications. These unofficial sources can be useful in legislative history research; they may offer evidence of intent not found in the official records. For example, while researching SB 116, I discovered news articles containing statements from lawmakers both in support of and opposed to the legislation as well as opinion pieces from RTW observers. Additionally, I unearthed an academic study that analyzed the factors leading to Michigan’s adoption of RTW laws including behind-the-scenes details of the politicking that influenced legislators.16
While news stories and scholarly publications may be useful in our understanding of legislative intent, it’s important to remember that these sources can be biased and at best serve as persuasive authority of intent.
Many factors impact our ability to ascertain legislative intent including availability of resources, timing of legislation, and more. I hope the strategies described in this article will be of help the next time you’re asked to compile a legislative history.17