Gov. Rick Snyder told them they were picking a fight they might regret. He wasn’t wrong.
Last week the governor signed into law bills that ban mandatory union membership, making Michigan the nation’s 24th right-to-work state – changing Detroit and its culture – as it has been known for almost 80 years.
“This is a vengeful attack on labor and the community,” said Rev. Dr. Wendell Anthony, president, Detroit Branch NAACP. “It does not guarantee stability. What it does do is eliminate strong unions that advocate on people’s behalf and determine the relationship between management and labor. Michigan must not become the new Mississippi.”
The far-reaching legislation threatens to cripple the power of organized labor in a state that was once a hub of union might. For many Americans, Michigan is the state that defines organized labor.
The term “right-to-work law” is a triumph of framing. Such laws do not, in fact, give you the right-to-work. They give you the right to refuse to pay union dues when you work for a union shop, even though you get the wages the union bargained for, and the benefits the union bargained for, and the grievance process the union bargained for.
“Right now, even before the law goes into effect, people have a choice. They have a right to pay dues or a service fee,” said Al Garrett, president of the Detroit chapter of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees union (AFSCME). “We have about 60,000 members in the state of Michigan. I can see hostility in the workplace between those people that are paying dues and those who are paying a service fee, but that will be for management folks to deal with.”
For instance, a person can work in a union shop without joining the union and paying full union dues. The costs of the union’s political activities, its membership events and more are removed from their dues. They pay a lower fee because they are just paying, at least in theory, the cost of the union’s representation activities.
Proponents call their win especially significant because the state is the birthplace of one of the country’s most powerful labor groups, the United Auto Workers. Founded in 1935, the union organized auto workers, winning wages and benefits that transformed assembly-line work into solid middle-class jobs.
“So-called right-to-work laws are wrong for our state,” said UAW Vice President Jimmy Settles, in an e-mail to the Chronicle. “They are more a political maneuver than a vehicle for gaining more jobs and rights. They destroy workplace democracy and drive down wages for all workers, unionized or not.”
Gov. Snyder, a former computer executive who campaigned as a moderate in the 2010 election, had said for nearly two years that right-to-work was too divisive for Michigan, but said he would sign a law if the legislature passed it. After the election he tried to get labor leaders and Republicans together to discuss a compromise, but he said those talks failed.
“We are part of a coalition and are looking into other options as regard to right-to-work,” said Garrett. “Should we go to court? Many things are on the table. We will be agitating for a better form of government as to who is in the House and the Senate. Look at the number of laws that have been passed by these lame duckers in this short of period of time and how sweeping they are. Abortion, gun rights…you name it, they did it. We have to talk about some form of reform.”
Labor Department figures show that unionized workers earn more and have better benefits than their non-union counterparts. But the number of American workers who are in labor unions is in sharp decline.
In Michigan, the share of unionized workers has dropped from 28.4 percent to 17.5 percent since 1985. Meanwhile, the nation’s struggle to hold on to manufacturing jobs and the travails of the auto industry made Michigan an economic basket case long before the recession. After the downturn hit, unemployment in the state peaked at 14.2 percent and now stands at 9.1 percent, far above the national average.
With increasing numbers of working Americans who must make do with falling wages, frozen pensions and long periods of joblessness, it is unclear whether they consider unions their allies. And union leaders have said it is too soon to predict how the new laws would affect their membership and recruiting. Presently, Detroit automakers are covered by existing labor contracts and will not be able to stop paying union fees until those deals lapse, which are in place until September 2015.
The vote ended a swift change of fortune for the forces of organized labor throughout the state. Unions and their supporters spent more than $22 million to back a ballot measure last month that would have guaranteed collective bargaining rights in the state Constitution, only to see it resoundingly defeated.
The rejection emboldened the Republican House and Senate. Sensing an opening, supporters pushed to have the legislature pass the right-to-work measure. Then and only then did Gov. Snyder, who had previously expressed ambivalence, come out in favor of it.
Freedom is not the unions’ friend. After Colorado required public-employees’ unions in 2001 to have annual votes reauthorizing the collection of dues, membership in the Colorado Association of Public Employees declined 70 percent.
After Indiana’s government stopped in 2005 collecting dues from unionized public employees, the number of dues-paying members plummeted 90 percent.
To be continued…
In Utah, automatic dues deductions for political activities were ended in 2001; made voluntary, payments from teachers declined 90 percent. After a similar measure in Washington State in 1992, the percentage of teachers making contributions fell from 82 to 11.
Nationwide, resentment of union power has been building. The Wall Street Journal reports that in the past four years “nearly every state . . . has enacted some form of pension changes” clawing back unsustainable benefits promised to unionized government employees.
The most conspicuous battle was in Wisconsin, where Republican Gov. Scott Walker survived organized labor’s attempt to recall him as punishment for restricting collective bargaining by unionized government workers. After Walker’s reforms, Indiana under Republican Gov. Mitch Daniels became the 23rd right-to-work state and the first in the industrial Midwest.
But in a convergence of methodical planning and patient alliance building — the systematic approach — the reformers were on a roll, one that establishment Michigan Republicans came to embrace.
Republicans executed a plan the timing, the language of the bills, the media strategy, and perhaps most importantly, the behind-the-scenes lobbying of top Republicans, including Gov. Snyder.
They knew they would likely face an acrimonious battle of the kind they had seen over the last two years in the neighboring state of Wisconsin between Gov. Walker and unions. Operating in plain sight but often overlooked, they worked to put the necessary building blocks in place.
November elections turned out to be the key to the December move. House Republicans lost five seats, making passage in January a more difficult proposition than pushing through legislation in the lame-duck session.
But the November elections had also served up a crushing referendum defeat for unions, which Republicans saw as a sign that public opinion would be behind them in their move to curb organized labor’s power. Michigan was the only state in the United States to see its population fall during the previous decade.
At a public meeting of labor and corporate leaders last summer, Gov. Snyder said he deliberately pleaded with union leaders not to go forward with the ballot initiative.
“If you do this, you should anticipate you’re going to create a divisive discussion on right-to-work also,” Snyder told Reuters in an interview last week, recalling his remarks.
Unions pressed forward and some Republicans say that this essentially blew up a “gentlemen’s agreement” between the unions and Republicans that neither would rock the boat on labor legislation in Michigan.
“This was a very backwards decision,” said Anthony. “It’s a movement to make us impure. This is a grand mistake on the governor’s part. It does not help Michigan. It hurts Michigan. All of the states that have right to work laws…have not advanced their communities. Snyder and his cohorts must think very carefully about what they are doing and the divisive and negative impact this will have on the state.”
Reuters and The Associated Press contributed to this story.