How the Bitter Losers of 2012 Rammed Through a Union-Destroying Bill in Michigan


The lightning-quick adoption of union-busting ‘right-to-work’ legislation in Michigan this week by an outgoing, lame-duck Legislature was a political coup led by vengeful Republicans as payback for their corporate patrons, including the billionaire oil baron Koch brothers and their front group, Americans for Prosperity.

There is no other way to interpret the events of the past few days other than to see it in the starkest of Hobbesian terms: while the state’s GOP still held legislative power, it enacted a bill to undermine the fundraising ability of organized labor—an obsession among right-wingers dating to the 1940s South, when states enacted similar laws to prevent organized labor from helping civil rights activists.

The package of three bills introduced late last week and quickly passed and signed by Republican Gov. Rick Snyder makes it illegal for employers and unions to negotiate contracts that require non union-members to pay a fair share of the costs of the union's representation. About 17 percent of Michigan’s workforce is affiliated with a union.

Fast-forward to 2012 and the apparently stalled fiscal-cliff talks in Washington—where GOP House Speaker John Boehner cannot satisfy the Right in another lame duck body—and what emerges is a political landscape as bitter as the worst moments of the 2012 campaign.

Indeed, the outcome of the 2012 elections—nationally and in Michigan, where the GOP resoundingly lost—was irrelevant to those still in power in Michigan. That is why the ram-rodding of the union-busting legislation is a political coup, achieving by fiat what could not pass muster at the voting booth.

Let’s go through these points in more detail to better understand what’s happened.

1. A Bitter Swipe By 2012’s Losers

Barack Obama beat Mitt Romney in Michigan by about 10 percent of the vote—almost a half-million voters—despite millions spent by the Koch Brothers-backed Americans for Prosperity and other pro-corporate political front groups. Republicans also lost seats in their Legislature, which will take affect in January when new lawmakers are sworn in.

The Democratic gains in large measure depended on the get-out-the-vote efforts by the state’s labor unions, which, as was the case in other Midwestern states, were less visible than the GOP’s front groups that mostly spent millions on TV advertising. The unions' role in the ground game—identifying and registering voters, knocking on doors and making phone calls, and finally getting people to the polls on November 6—was a striking reminder that organizer labor remained a potent grassroots political force.

Thus, Gov. Snyder’s surprise announcement last week that he was reversing his former position that he would not pursue ‘right-to-work’ legislation was a political declaration of war against opponents who had beaten the GOP fair and square on the electoral field.

2. Right To Work’s Southern Segregationist Roots.

As PRWatch’s Lisa Graves points out in this analysis, the Orwellian-named right-to-work (RTW) laws first emerged in the post-World War II years in southern states that wanted to thwart the civil rights gains made by returning African-American soldiers and labor unions during the war. Twenty states passed RTW laws in the following decades, including many that saw the laws as a tactic to stop unions from helping civil rights organizers.

In the past 25 years before Michigan's coup, only three states have adopted RTW laws: Idaho in 1995; Oklahoma in 2001; and Indiana in 2012. Indeed, as PRWatch points out, the “2012 presidential election map of ‘red’ states looks strikingly close to the RTW map. But the vast majority of ‘blue’ states, like Michigan, have not embraced” the union-busting reform.

3. Championed by 21st Century Corporatists

It’s no mystery where Michigan’s RTW legislation came from. The aggressively pro-corporate American Legislative Exchange Council, ALEC, is a policy clearinghouse that recruits newly elected state legislators and meets with them (and long-standing members) and corporate sponsors in private to draft ‘model’ legislation that can be introduced at a moment’s notice in state legislative chambers.

The Center for Media and Democracy has reported that “key provisions of the Michigan RTW bills (for instance, HB 4054) are taken almost verbatim from the ALEC template,” reported its December 11 analysis. “That agenda is part of a corporate wish list of Charles and David Koch, the oil billionaires who have spent millions trying to popularize extremist ideas and move them from the fringes into binding law.”

The Koch Brothers have been pushing anti-union legislation for decades—ever since the passel of mostly southern states stopped passing RTW legislation in the 1980s. One of their former groups, Citizens For A Sound Economy, along with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, pushed for international trade agreements in the 1980s that forced American labor unions to lower their standards to meet those of overseas trading partners.

Their 21st century front group, Americans for Prosperity, played a leading role in the Wisconsin battles in 2011 and 2012 to strip public employees of collective bargaining rights (with the notable exception of police and firefighters—as their unions tend to support GOP candidates). Those battles led to the unsuccessful campaign to recall Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker and other top GOP lawmakers. Tellingly, Michigan’s package of RTW legislation also exempts pro-GOP police and firefighter unions.

4. A Political Coup In Plain Daylight

Perhaps the most important point about what just happened in Michigan is that is an authoritarian power grab by partisans who are completely dismissive of the electorate—as expressed in the Democratic electoral victories one month ago—and are willing to wield power in a take-no-prisoners fashion akin to recent Third World coups.

The power dynamic that just unfolded resembles the arrest and dismissal of Mali’s prime minister by a military junta—which also happened this week—or the recent presidential decrees in Egypt that placed that county’s new president above the rule of law. These power grabs happened because those enacting them could get away with it—at least temporarily.

It’s very telling that such political abuses of power come before newly elected legislators are poised to take office—in what’s known as ‘lame-duck’ legislative sessions. Perhaps the thinking of these outgoing legislators is that they have nothing to lose by striking at foes in a manner that they could not achieve at the ballot box.

That viewpoint also seems to be very much at play in Congress right now, as well, where right-wingers are ignoring the results of the 2012 presidential election and pushing for another long-held corporatist agenda item: dismantling safety net retirement programs.

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