In Michigan, heart of organized labor, Republicans push to limit union power

December 7, 2012

Republicans in Michigan are acting swiftly to adopt broad limits on the ability to organize workers, as the war over organized labor moves into the state that gave rise to modern industrial unions.

Unbowed by their party’s thumping at the polls nationally last month, Republicans who control Michigan’s legislature approved measures in the lame-duck session this week that would make Michigan a “right to work” state, effectively banning unions there from requiring workers to pay labor dues.

The powerful United Automobile Workers sees the measure as a threat to its existence at a time when the U.S. auto industry is rebounding. Thousands of union protesters on Thursday stormed the State Capitol in Lansing and clashed with police as they sounded their opposition by chanting and blowing whistles.

For conservative sponsors, including a group financed by billionaires Charles and David Koch, Michigan is a new frontier in the wake of bitter legislative battles in Wisconsin, Ohio and Indiana. After failing to oust Democrats from power at the national level in 2012, conservatives are turning anew to state legislatures to push anti-union laws and other measures.

President Obama will wade into the midst of the Michigan debate Monday when he visits a Detroit area auto plant in a state he won resoundingly in part because of the support of the UAW. A White House spokesman said the president opposes right-to-work legislation but could not say whether Obama plans to address it directly in his remarks Monday.

Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder (R) abruptly switched sides this week after saying for the past two years that legislation limiting unions was too divisive. Snyder announced that he would sign a union-limiting bill if it comes to his desk as early as next week, prompting accusations that he had bowed to pressure from the political right.

“The right-to-work discussion was getting escalated on all sides and it became a divisive issue. It was continuing to grow to the point that it is on my agenda,” Snyder said in an interview Friday. “I believe in collective bargaining,” the governor added, but he said that “workers should have the freedom to choose” whether to join a union.

If the measure passes, UAW President Bob King said, the union would pursue options to recall state legislators and, perhaps, Snyder — potentially thrusting Michigan into the kind of political turmoil that gripped Wisconsin earlier this year.

“They didn’t learn from the election,” King said. “The reason President Obama won and so many of the senators won is because of overreaching by the extreme right of the Republican Party, and this is another example of them doing it.”

The Michigan fight carries heavy symbolism for the national labor movement, which has endured declining membership and political setbacks for decades. Republicans have successfully passed measures in the past two years limiting union power in Indiana and Wisconsin, while a similar effort in Ohio was overturned by a public initiative.

“Michigan was the heart of the Rust Belt. It was the center of the United Auto Workers, and the UAW represented the highest aspirations of American unionism, so for Michigan to be considering becoming a so-called right to work state is itself quite a statement about the plight of organized labor,” said Robert Reich, a former labor secretary under Bill Clinton.

Reich added that such a law would become “a symbolic black eye for the president,” coming so soon after his union-fueled electoral triumph across the Midwestern rust belt.

Exit polling from the election shows that 28 percent of Michigan voters live in union households. And while Obama narrowly edged Republican Mitt Romney 50 percent to 49 percent among nonunion households, he won union households 66 percent to 33 percent. Overall, Obama won Michigan — Romney’s birthplace — by more than 9 percentage points.

But Michigan voters also rejected an amendment put forth by the UAW and other labor leaders that would have blocked right-to-work legislation by guaranteeing collective bargaining rights in the state constitution.

The ballot measure thrust the issue to the forefront of debate and its failure emboldened Republicans, said Greg McNeilly, who runs Michigan Freedom Fund, a political action group pushing the right-to-work bill. The group is backed by Dick DeVos, a multimillionaire conservative activist whose family founded Amway.

“Bob King put this on the agenda,” McNeilly said, referencing the UAW president. “He threatened this state. He tried to bully and intimidate the state with this disastrous proposal that was so bad a majority of his members didn’t even back it. The whole state had a conversation. They lost.”

King, in an interview, repeatedly named the Koch brothers and DeVos as wealthy benefactors who, he said, “bullied and bought their way to get this legislation in Michigan.”

Scott Hagerstrom, Michigan director of Americans for Prosperity, the Koch-backed group, said conservatives took away an important lesson from Wisconsin: Gov. Scott Walker (R) survived a union-backed recall campaign after moving to limit the powers of public workers’ unions.

“We said, ‘Hey, we can do this here,’ ” Hagerstrom said.

And so on Thursday, Michigan’s Republican-controlled state House and Senate each passed bills banning unions from requiring dues from private- and public-sector workers. Each measure must now be sent to the other chamber for final approval, which could occur as soon as Tuesday, and legislative leaders said there was little doubt that the bills would pass.

“This is possibly the most divisive issue that the Republicans could push in Michigan. It absolutely astonishes me that they would see such a huge Obama victory . . . and come back with an even more extreme agenda than they’ve already been pushing,” state Senate Democratic leader Gretchen Whitmer said.

Michigan is arguably the heart of unionism in the United States. The UAW was founded in Detroit in 1935 and quickly organized assembly workers in automobile plants throughout Michigan and across the nation. Its membership peaked in the 1970s at more than 1.5 million but has fallen to just under 400,000 after decades of declining domestic manufacturing.

Although most states in the South forbid unions from requiring workers to pay dues or fees, the industrial Midwest had long resisted such legislation. Earlier this year, however, Indiana passed a bill that mirrors the one on its way to passage in Michigan. Business leaders and other supporters of the Michigan bill said it would help the state compete for manufacturing jobs with Indiana; the Big Three auto companies are officially neutral on the issue.

“This is a game changer,” said state House Speaker Jase Bolger (R). “Now Michigan workers will have the freedom to choose which organizations they want to join or not join.”

Scott Clement contributed to this report.

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