ON TUESDAY, Republican Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder followed through on his promise to “reinvent” his state in ways no one could have imagined when they elected him in 2010. The result means there’s some Democratic soul-searching to be done in a state that voted for President Obama last month, and paid for its 2010 vote last night. The hard way.
With strokes of a pen, Snyder officially made Michigan a "right-to-work" state (the 24th in the nation) when he signed into law S.B. 0116 and H.B. 4003, two bills that drastically undercut the power of unions by barring them from compelling workers to pay union dues — a longtime national objective for the Republican Party, and one that weakens the organizing and voter-outreach infrastructure of the Democratic Party.
Snyder moved at breakneck speed to sign the bills, hours after the state House fast-tracked the bills covering public and private employees, and did it without public comment. The law for public employees goes into effect in little more than 100 days, on March 31. The law covering private workers takes effect after existing contracts expire.
“I have signed these bills into law. ... We are moving forward on the topic of workplace fairness and equality,” he said at a press conference on Tuesday.
“... I don’t view this as anti-labor. I view this as pro-worker,” Snyder said.
What President Obama recently called “the right to work for less money” has been a fact of life in many states, particularly in the South, for decades. But Michigan joins Wisconsin and Ohio among northern states whose flirtations with RTW legislation point to a political tactic that's growing in states led by Republican governors all over the country.
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A lot can happen between February and December. On Feb. 1, Snyder testified at a House committee hearing on the economy and job creation. He said then that right-to-work was inherently “divisive” and that RTW legislation would not be a priority of his administration. “It’s not on my agenda,” he said.
Fast forward to Tuesday. In his press conference, Snyder explained his volte-face on the matter: It’s the unions’ fault. Snyder blamed union support for Proposal 2, a ballot measure that would have cemented collective bargaining rights in the state constitution. The measure was rejected by voters on Election Day.
“The timing of such is something I didn't seek out,” he said. “But really what took place this summer with Proposal 2 triggered the dialogue and discussion on this. I asked labor leaders not to move forward with a ballot proposal because I knew it could trigger a discussion that could lead to right to work being a divisive issue. Unfortunately they moved forward, it became divisive, and it was time to step up and take a leadership position, which I believe I've done, with good teamwork in the legislature.”
But since the voters rejected Proposal 2 on Nov. 6, Snyder’s rationale for signing the RTW bills didn’t really exist. He based his actions on a desire to prevent divisiveness on the issue, when his signing the RTW measures into law only guarantees the very divisiveness he says he was trying to avoid.
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Richard Trumka unloaded on Snyder’s move at the organization’s Web site:
“Political partisanship reigns supreme in Michigan today, thanks to a radical group of Republicans ramming through so-called right to work legislation in the lame-duck session, despite massive protests in the state’s Capitol building. The people in the Capitol and around the state are demanding that legislators focus on an agenda that puts families and communities first, yet these Republican legislators and Snyder are willing to put politics ahead of Michigan’s well-being.
“This legislation is about silencing the voices of working families in our democracy at a time when what we need is for people to have a stronger voice in building our future. Now, more than ever, people in Lansing and Michigan need to work together to rebuild and focus on the big issues that bring people together. This could not be more divisive.
“Gov. Snyder’s sideshow of a press conference today was an utterly disingenuous attempt to mislead. With his announcement, Snyder joins a list of other governors—Kasich, Walker and others—who have acted to put the future of their states in the hands of big corporations and CEOs and leave working families behind.”
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IN WAYS that are obvious right now, Michiganders paid the price on Tuesday for the election of 2010, when a weak state Democratic field went up against a generalized Tea Party-fueled discontent. Snyder won the governor’s chair in a relative walk.
Snyder “benefited from widespread voter dissatisfaction with [then Gov. Jennifer] Granholm and divisions within the Democratic Party that produced in [Democratic nominee Virg] Bernero a relatively weak, cash-poor nominee who started out the general election campaign behind by 20 points and never caught up. Add to that a simple desire of Michigan voters, as happened nationally, to cast their lot with the Republicans.” Peter Luke of Bridge Magazine wrote in November 2010.
But it’s worse than that. Michigan’s workers are also paying for the failure of Democratic party leadership at state and national levels to focus on the small-ball game of local politics, concentrating instead on the White House.
“Since the late ’00s, labor has used much of its political and financial capital to elect, and then re-elect, President Barack Obama, and to a lesser extent, support Congressional and gubernatorial candidates,” reported Micheline Maynard, at Forbes. “There has been less money for local candidates, and few bodies, because membership is not growing.
“Now, the labor movement can see the result: when Republicans take over state houses, they pass measures that hinder union organizing efforts. Thus, local elections have become more important than in the past.”
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On MSNBC’s “Ed Show” on Tuesday, Michigan Sen. Debbie Stabenow spelled out the new landscape for her state’s workers, and the stakes for workers in the two dozen remaining states that haven’t gone RTW.
Workers, she said, “don’t have to join [unions] … they get the benefits of collective bargaining — higher wages, higher benefits. The question is whether they contribute, not whether they get the benefits ...”
“[W]ages are lower, working conditions are less safe in states where workers don’t have a voice at the bargaining table,” Stabenow said. “… [T]his sets us on a dangerous course of a race to the bottom that will be detrimental and, frankly, threaten the entire middle class of this country. ...
“It’s a power grab, unfortunately, in the purest, most partisan sense.”
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BEYOND THE blatant bid to seize power for its own sake, Snyder’s move could have disastrous consequences at a more granular level. Once existing contracts expire, the stage may soon be set for ugly confrontations between workers who kick in union dues and those who don’t; such bottom-line divisions between rank-and-file employees could deal a serious blow to the idea of union solidarity.
But a pushback has already started. Rev. Charles Williams III, the National Action Network Michigan, said in a statement on the SEIU Web site, " “Because good jobs and so much else is at stake, we will not rest until workers’ rights to a fair and decent wage are restored. Everything is on the table during the next two years.”
Forbes’ Maynard reports: “Democrats have already made some head way in Michigan, where they will gain seats in the 2013 legislature, though not enough to change the Republican majority. The new Right to Work legislation was constructed so that it can’t be repealed by voters. That will take action by the state legislature, which means Democrats have to unseat more Republicans, and Snyder, if they want to reverse Tuesday’s moves.”
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But It’s safe to say that if anything will motivate the workers of the state of Michigan — which voted last month to soundly reject Mitt Romney’s bid for the presidency — this should be it. The widespread dissatisfaction with Snyder’s action could galvanize the state’s labor forces into the kind of action that Ohio voters took last year when they repealed a law to limit collective bargaining in the Buckeye State. Protests in Michigan are just getting started; Snyder’s action may yield the broad storm-the-statehouse scale of protests that happened after Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker signed a similar law in March 2011.
“We have 2014 as a goal to shift out and win justice,” Michigan AFL-CIO President Karla Swift told the Detroit Free Press. “The sleeping tiger is awake now.”
Image credits: Snyder: Associated Press. AFL-CIO seal: © 2012 AFL-CIO.