Labor’s Last Stand? Gubernatorial Election Shows Influence Of Labor Movement

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    The writing on the wall is clear and the cracks can now be seen on the ceiling for the labor movement.

    What is supposed to be a politically unified party is now starting to divide itself as evidenced by the Carpenters Union standing side-by-side with Republican flag bearer Rick Snyder.

    This election is either a test of the growing or waning influence of the labor movement in Michigan.

    Every candidate on the Democratic ticket had to be approved by labor, meaning that all candidates are darlings of the movement that once safeguarded middle class families from the excesses of corporate abuse and power.

    Thanks to labor, the kinds of abuses of workers that were rampant during the industrial revolution were halted with the emergence of labor groups like the United Auto Workers, AFL-CIO and others.

    For decades labor has sought to address social equity within the context of socio-economic development, believing that when you invest in the worker, it makes for transformation of both the business and community.

    The business grows and the worker is happy that there is dignity in labor with the respect accorded in the workplace because someone is holding the feet of corporate bosses to the fire.
    In fact, the candidates who refused to acknowledge or seek the endorsement of organized labor were shown the door to leave the Democratic camp.

    Those candidates who dared to challenge the legitimacy of labor by ignoring the demands of the movement lacked enough votes to capture the Democratic nomination.

    As one insider told me, “When you crush labor you pay a high price” — something that is not new and should be known by anyone who is not politically naïve.

    Labor made Lansing mayor Virg Bernero the Democratic nominee for governor because of an unforgivable sin supposedly committed by House Speaker Andy Dillon.

    When Dillon proposed overhauling the state’s health care pension system, it was seen as a dig into union groups, not an alternative way of restructuring the financial system of state government.

    And so even as Dillon went on to campaign with his supporters thinking they had locked in the nomination backed by his huge campaign war chest, for labor it was still a long shot for the House speaker. They vowed to destroy his chances of becoming governor, and they did just that.

    Added to that conundrum is Dillon’s self-defeatist position of being against abortion, another unforgivable sin female Democrats would not tolerate in their camp, especially for one running for governor.
    What did Bernero do?

    His campaign was a tribute to the labor movement. He went around paying homage to the UAW and other union groups for standing up for “the little guy.”

    Even at this year’s gathering of the state’s economic, business, political and media elites at Mackinac Island, Bernero repeated his praise of labor and never backed off.

    For some on the island it was seen as odd, but for Bernero and his cadre of supporters it was the right thing to do — look into the face of the corporate community and tell them that labor has provided that safety net for families they otherwise would have ignored.

    Given the current political dispensation, it is hard to know if singing that labor refrain will work. All of us can agree that what once worked will not necessarily work now.

    As the demands of the times place new questions on our approach to business and how state government should be run, so must labor. How this is done is anyone’s guess.

    It becomes that much more complicated when some Democrats are holding Nicodemus-type meetings in the dark with Snyder.

    So in essence, the gubernatorial election in November is perhaps the lasting test of the political fortitude of the labor movement.

    How much clout do they carry with their union dues that make huge campaign donations possible?

    Even during the presidential campaign, President Obama unashamedly declared himself a labor candidate in Detroit, and he glowingly touted the protracted struggle of unions for social justice and equal treatment in the workplace.
    The question now remains if labor can galvanize enough support from voters to turn the tide against Snyder. It would seem like an easy thing to do given how the Dillon campaign was decimated by labor forces.

    More so that Snyder’s running with Brian Calley, a strong abortion oppoent and a supporter of making Michigan a right-to-work state, something that labor sees as a political nightmare because it removes protection from workers.

    Even though Snyder has been very coy about taking positions on the explosive cultural and social issues, he will have to confront those issues at some point.

    It may not be the politically expedient thing to do right now, but the next governor should be straightforward with voters on the issues that tend to divide communities.

    Can labor win this election? Based on the history of grassroots labor organizing, there is a strong chance that they can. But the bigger issue is whether labor is supporting the right candidate.

    Is Bernero, despite his strong labor credentials, the right candidate for the Democrats at this point?

    I have always been skeptical of polls because they serve as a disservice to voters by in some cases preempting their choices in the election.

    Polls can have an opium-like effect no matter how because they can can deceive voters into thinking that a particular candidate is the best choice, so therefore everyone should get on the bandwagaon.

    As always, the best poll is on Election Day. Detroit has been the epicenter of the labor movement. If labor cannot get more than a hundred thousand Detroit voters to the polls in November, it will be a harbinger of things to come in the future.

    Let’s see if the men and women who comprise the labor movement can make changes in this campaign season.

    Let’s see how these members who see themselves as defenders of human rights in the workplace can inject fire into the gubernatorial campaign.

    Will reverence for the picket line translate into high spirits and actual votes in November?

    E-mail Bankole Thompson at bthompson@michronicle.com.

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