Democrats who control the Michigan state legislature scored a huge win last week by repealing the state’s “right to work” law, which helped decimate unions’ ranks by letting workers opt out of dues. The repeal will allow organized labor in the state to rebuild, boosting Democrats in the heart of the industrial Midwest.
But the move also offers Democrats something less obvious: an opening to craft an effective response to the reactionary culture war mania unfolding in many red states.
The pro-union bill, which Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer signed on Friday, follows other measures Democrats passed this month to strengthen LGBTQ anti-discrimination protections and repeal an old state abortion ban.
In this, Michigan Democrats are using the majorities they won in 2022 to advance an agenda that’s economically and socially liberal — as developments that can complement one another.
“We’re going to stand for civil rights and labor rights at the same time,” state Sen. Darrin Camilleri, who represents a swing district around Detroit, told me. Doing both, he added, is “showing that we can deliver for working-class people across the board.”
Republicans often talk about the culture wars in class terms. Party leaders say their “anti-woke” agenda embodies “working-class values.” Republicans who lean toward populism go further, genuinely trying — to some limited degree — to create a pro-worker agenda that combines economic and culturally conservative or reactionary appeals.
Democrats, by contrast, are regularly sucked into fruitless battles over whether to emphasize economic or social issues. This is often a proxy for a dispute over which groups in their coalition to prioritize: working-class voters, especially Whites who have been abandoning the party, or more affluent, culturally liberal suburbanites.
But these Michigan developments hint at a more nuanced approach — one grounded in a bet on the changing nature of the American working class and its place in the Democratic coalition.
In the emerging Democratic reading, the old vision of a White, male, breadwinning working class concentrated in burly jobs shapes much political analysis, but it’s a pundit fiction. With service, retail and health-care sectors growing as manufacturing and mining jobs dwindle, the new working class is far more ethnically and culturally diverse — and more socially liberal — than commonly supposed.
Those developments are entangled with the decline of labor, which has partly resulted from many “right to work” laws such as the one in Michigan. This has produced a crucial combination in today’s working class, as Rich Yeselson explains in the American Prospect: It’s both more diverse in ethnicity and life experience and less represented by unions than before.
What Michigan Democrats are doing reflects these deep currents. Repealing “right to work” is meant to rebuild labor representation (a long, difficult task) and working-class support. But it also shows the party no longer fears that robust social liberalism will alienate working-class voters.
“We have this vision of the working class as socially conservative,” labor historian Erik Loomis told me. “This is largely not true.” The new working class, he said, represents “the broad diversity of the United States,” so choosing between economic and cultural issues is a “sucker’s game.”
Camilleri sees this firsthand. Michigan still has many manufacturing workers. But many are non-White, and a large, diverse service workforce also turns out for Democrats. On top of that, he says, many working-class women — Whites included — voted for Democrats in 2022 “because of abortion rights.”
The new calculus also reflects a changing Democratic coalition, notes Michael Kazin, author of a new history of the Democratic Party. He says Democrats are now confident that the college-educated voters trending the party’s way are fundamentally “progressive on economic and cultural issues.”
But, Kazin told me, Democrats must do more to “break through” with working-class people, by showing that social liberalism can coexist with “affordable health care, housing, and a right to a voice at one’s workplace.” For Democrats, executing this in Michigan could be “the wave of the future.”
There is grounds for some optimism. Research by political scientists Paul Frymer and Jacob M. Grumbach has found that higher rates of unionization make workers less susceptible to cultural grievance appeals. Grumbach tells me repealing “right to work” could help.
All this could also begin reversing what you might call the “curse of 2010.” The advent of “right to work” in Michigan — and neighboring Wisconsin — resulted from the GOP’s 2010 takeover of many state governments. As the American Prospect’s Harold Meyerson notes, those laws — entrenching antilabor policy in the heart of the Democratic Rust Belt — were as central to the GOP’s radicalization as a national party as its hard-right cultural lurch has been.
If Michigan Democrats repeal “right to work” while protecting abortion and LGBTQ rights — making voters feel represented in the process — it could start undoing those big developments that haunt the party and the country.
There is a long way to go. Wisconsin, where the GOP controls the legislature, will remain “right to work” for years to come. Democratic majorities have proven skittish about implementing pro-labor policy in places with less union history, such as Virginia.
But getting the labor-culture balance right could prove just the antidote to the reactionary GOP frenzy. If Republicans can sell their culture war agenda as appealing to “working-class values,” so too can Democrats sell an unabashed liberal answer to it as better for workers — on economic issues and cultural values alike.