Jeffrey Sauger

As you’ve heard, Republicans in Michigan are ramming through a new “right to work” law that will make the payment of union fees voluntary in the private and public sectors (with exceptions for police and fire unions). Opponents see union busting in the effort — the latest sign of the contemporary GOP’s break with a longtime bipartisan consensus holding that collective bargaining plays a crucial role in providing a path to the middle class.

Here’s a historical tidbit that underlines this neatly. Guess whose historic pro-labor legacy is getting undermined by today’s moves? That of former Michigan Republican Governor George Romney.

This comes by way of Dem Rep. Sander Levin, who negotiated seminal pro-labor legislation with the father of the GOP presidential nominee as a state senator from suburban Detroit in the 1960s.

“When there were final issues to be worked out, I went to a meeting with Governor Romney, one on one,” Levin tells me. “We sat there for an hour. The Governor was in his rocking chair with his blue sweater. And he said, ‘Well, I think we’ve resolved all the issues. Let’s proceed.'”

The two pieces of legislation that Governor Romney and Dems in the legislature passed in 1965 marked a major step forward for labor relations, providing full collective bargaining rights to public employees, and strengthening them for private sector employees. Both passed on a solid bipartisan basis, Levin recalls.

Today, Republicans are passing legislation that essentially reverses that tradition, Levin maintains — and is a sign of how far to the right the GOP has moved on labor issues. As Dave Weigel notes, there are many reasons for this shift, such as the 2010 Tea Party wave’s impact on state legislatures. Detroit Free Press writer Steven Henderson details the substantive case against the GOP move. The big picture, as Alec MacGillis details, is that Michigan — the birthplace of the United Auto Workers — is now joining other states in a right-to-work race to the bottom.

“This is essentially the capture of the Republican Party by the radical right,” Levin says. “Michigan was a founding parent of the modern labor movement by way of bipartisan agreement. What Republicans are doing is tearing up the tradition that built the middle class of America.” The father of the recently vanquished GOP presidential candidate just might agree.