A union steel worker holds up a sign during a rally outside the Capitol in Lansing, Michigan, Thursday, December 6, 2012, as Senate Republicans introduced “right to work” legislation in the waning days of the legislative session. (AP Photo/Carlos Osorio)
In the state where workers sat down in Flint General Motors plants seventy-five years ago and emboldened the industrial labor movement that would give birth to the American middle class, Republican legislators on Thursday voted to gut basic labor rights.
Union leaders warned that, if organized labor can be so battered in the union heartland of Michigan, it can—and may—be attacked anywhere. And the national significance of the move was highlighted by a statement from the Obama White House, which said:
President Obama has long opposed so-called “right-to-work” laws and he continues to oppose them now. The President believes our economy is stronger when workers get good wages and good benefits, and he opposes attempts to roll back their rights. Michigan—and its workers’ role in the revival of the US automobile industry—is a prime example of how unions have helped build a strong middle class and a strong American economy.
But, while the president carried Michigan by a 54-44 margin on November 6, neither he nor his fellow Democrats were calling the shots Thursday.
After Republican leaders announced Thursday morning that they intended to enact so-called “right to work” legislation—which is always better described as “no rights at work” legislation—the Michigan state House voted Thursday afternoon to eliminate basic union organizing and workplace protections that generations of American workers fought to establish. Several hours later, the Michigan state Senate did the same thing, as part of a bold anti-labor initiative launched in coordination with a Koch Brothers–funded Americans for Prosperity project to “pave the way for right to work in states across our nation.”
As the Republicans launched the attack on unions and their members, Americans for Prosperity—a group developed and funded by right-wing industrialists and billionaire campaign donors Charles and David Koch—was in the thick of things. AFP recruited conservatives to show up at the state Capitol in Lansing to counter union protests and prepared materials supporting the Michigan initiative, including a fifteen-page booklet titled “Unions: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly: How forced unionization has harmed workers and Michigan.” Within minutes of the announcement by Michigan Governor Rick Snyder that Republicans would ram through the “right to work” legislation, AFP was hailing the move in formal statements “as the shot heard around the world for workplace freedom.”
Snyder, a Republican, has indicated that he will sign the measure that was passed during a lame-duck session of the legislature.
Employing slick messaging and a timeline clearly developed to thwart opposition, Snyder and his legislative allies claimed that they were enacting anti-labor legislation to create “Freedom to Choose” in the workplace. But the Orwellian turn of phrase did not fool the working people of Michigan, thousands of whom surrounded and occupied the Capitol during a day of emotional protest. “Right-to-work would set all Michigan workers back in terms of wages, benefits and safety on the job,” declared Mike Polkki, a mine worker from Ishpeming who joined furious last-minute efforts to lobby members of the Republican-controlled legislative chambers. “Instead of attacking the middle class, our lawmakers should work to build it back up.”
This was theme or protests throughout the day, as Michigan unions made the point that undermining labor rights undermines the living standards of all working people—not just union members.
“There are some basic economic facts that should inform any thoughtful discussion of Right to Work legislation. Workers, union or nonunion, make an average of $1,500 less per year in Right to Work states. They are also less likely to have pension or health care benefits,” explained Michigan State AFL-CIO President Karla Swift. “The growth rate for Right to Work states before they adopted such policies is actually higher than the growth rate for these states after they adopted these laws.”
The statements were true.
But they were not taken seriously by the Republicans who—though they suffered setbacks in the November 6 election—control both chambers of the Michigan legislature. Swift and UAW president Bob King were among hundreds of workers who were locked out of the Michigan Capitol Thursday, as protesters inside were pepper-sprayed and arrested by State Police.
The Republican legislators evidenced no intention to listen to logic, or to entertain honest debate. GOP legislative leaders had plotted behind closed doors with Governor Snyder, to have Michigan join the traditionally lower-wage states that decades ago enacted “right to work” laws to thwart the rise of a labor movement that promoted civil rights, women’s rights and economic justice.
The Michigan legislation goes much further than proposals advanced last year by Republican governors in Wisconsin and Ohio, which targeted public employees. Under the Michigan legislation, basic labor rights are stripped away from both public and private-sector workers.
That’s not the only difference between Michigan Governor Snyder and Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, whose name became synonymous with aggressive anti-labor initiatives when in February 2011, he moved to strip collective bargaining rights from teachers and public employees.
“At least Scott Walker had the backbone to barge through the front door” and propose his legislation, argued Senate Minority Leader Gretchen Whitmer, a pro-labor Democrat from East Lansing. Michigan’s Snyder, who suggested for months that he was not interested in advancing “right to work” legislation, suddenly shifted position at the eleventh hour, when he sided with the most rigidly anti-labor of his party’s legislators.
“They’re cowards,” declared Whitmer, who bluntly declared: “They are taking away our rights.”
Whitmer got that right. But the cowards were in charge Thursday.
As in Wisconsin, where crucial elements of Walker’s anti-labor law have been ruled unconstitutional by the courts, the Michigan legislators bent the rules of their chambers to rush the law to Snyder’s desk.
Ultimately, those abuses could end up preventing implementation of the law—although that’s a hope rather than a certainty.
There is also the hope that voters in a state that voted overwhelmingly for President Obama and Democratic Senator Debbie Stabenow on November 6 will eventually elect a new pro-labor governor and legislature.
The determination to fight for labor rights runs deep in Michigan. It’s a part of the state’s history, and UAW President King says it is far from finished.
Referring to anti-labor billionaire Dick DeVos, a Michigan Republican who has worked closely with fellow billionaires Charles and David Koch to fund anti-labor initiatives, King said: “This is a short-term victory for Dick DeVos and the radical right wing. In the long-term there will be a victory for working families in Michigan.”
For more on the assault on American worker rights, check out Steve Fraser’s “The Hollowing Out of America.”