How Michigan Republicans Caught Labor Off-Guard, Making Law Worse than Wisconsin's

It seemed to happen so fast. Actually, it was years in the making: A law designed to eviscerate the membership rolls of labor unions in the state in which the mighty United Auto Workers makes its home was rammed through both houses of the Michigan legislature and signed into law Tuesday by Gov. Rick Snyder. As Wisconsin is to public employee unions, so is Michigan to the unions of the manufacturing sector -- a place emblematic of labor’s political sway, a force now diminished by the new law.

Taken up in a lame-duck legislative session, the prospects for the bill’s passage caught everybody off-guard, thanks to a sudden change of heart by Snyder who had, throughout his term, expressed opposition to any law that, like the one he just signed, would allow workers in union shops -- such as those employed by the big-three automakers whose plants account for more than 136,000 Michigan jobs -- to opt out of paying dues to the unions that represent them.

But Snyder faces re-election in 2014, which means his campaign begins now, with this opening volley. Had the legislature passed the law, drafted by the American Legislative Exchange Council (the organization funded by billionaire brothers Charles and David Koch that drafted Wisconsin’s anti-union law), and Snyder failed to sign it, he might have faced fierce opposition from Americans for Prosperity, the Koch-funded astroturf group that was also instrumental in the passage of the Wisconsin law. Even worse (for him), Snyder might have faced a primary challenge.

The Michigan governor was no doubt emboldened in his back-tracking by the results of the Proposal 2 referendum, which, had it passed, would have enshrined collective bargaining rights in the state constitution. The measure’s defeat -- by a 15-point margin in an election dominated by Democratic wins from the presidency on down -- gave Republicans a “head count,” writes Rich Yeselson at the American Prospect. “The head count said simply that the UAW and allied unions did not have the unqualified support of most Michigan voters." (In fairness to the unions, it should be said that opponents waged a relentless air campaign against the proposal in the final two weeks of the election, according to Karla Swift of the Michigan AFL-CIO, drawing from a virtually bottomless well of money provided by the likes of the Kochs, the DeVos family that created the Amway empire, and assorted business interests.)

So, head count no doubt taken into consideration, Snyder gambled that his embrace of the law its proponents call “right to work” would cost him less at the polls than it would to piss off the Kochs and their friends. Until that point, however, Snyder -- who is an anti-choice right-winger -- had his apologists among Michigan’s smart set, notably the editorial board of the Detroit Free Press, the state’s best-known newspaper. And the editorial board was not amused. To be proven so wrong in its backing of a public official whose shortcomings they so often lent cover -- well, smart-set people such as editorial board members don’t like being left with egg on their faces. And so they wrote:

In short, we trusted Snyder's judgment.

That trust has now been betrayed -- for us, and for the hundreds of thousands of independents who voted for Snyder with the conviction that they were electing someone more independent, and more visionary, than partisan apparatchiks like Wisconsin's Scott Walker or Florida's Rick Scott.

(Here’s hoping editorial board members will remember this moment the next time they’re inclined to side with a self-described moderate who is actually a right-winger.)

But unions are not totally without blame in this equation. As Ruth Conniff of the Progressive, a publication known as a stalwart supporter of labor, points out, unions, especially the UAW, made perhaps too many concessions along the way, weakening their power and the public perception thereof. And, as Harold Meyerson notes in his comprehensive TAP piece (“What Happens if Labor Dies?”), by the 1980s unions were hardly working to broaden their membership. "Lulled during the years of labor’s power into thinking they’d attained sufficient numbers to keep on winning better contracts, they largely stopped organizing,” Meyerson writes, “devoting only 4 percent of their budgets to recruiting new members.”

The next step for Michigan labor leaders and their allies is to get a referendum on the ballot that would essentially repeal the just-passed union-busting law. It will be a hard fight, and could take several years to win, Yeselson writes, but it’s winnable.

But that’s just Michigan. What’s needed is a national, progressive strategy that encompasses labor battles -- after all, this is the essence of the class war fight -- with all the other progressive issues. (Just a day after passing the anti-labor law, Michigan’s legislature introduced a bill that would allow healthcare providers to opt out of providing care that goes against their religious beliefs.) Most of these battles take place at the state level. Progressives need an ALEC of their own -- and a lot of boots on the ground.


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