What went wrong in Michigan?

December 19, 2012

Lee Sustar argues that labor's failed strategy opened the way for the passage of anti-union "right-to-work" legislation in one of labor's most important strongholds.

IF LOSING Indiana to "right-to-work" forces was a disaster for organized labor, the defeat for unions in Michigan was a catastrophe. Yet labor leaders themselves must bear most of the blame for this terrible loss.

Certainly, lavishly funded union-busters and labor-hating Republican politicians were formidable foes in pushing "right-to-work" measures. That's shorthand for legislation that makes it illegal for union membership to be mandatory, even though unions must continue to provide services for workers who "opt out" of paying their fair share of dues.

Nevertheless, the road to a "right-to-work" victory in Michigan was paved by decades of labor's failed strategy of partnership with employers and uncritical political support for the Democrats.

For three-quarters of a century, unions have been promising to organize the South, where "right-to-work" laws are prevalent. Now, the opposite is happening--anti-union political forces are steamrollering into the North, bringing the Southern laws with them.

Thousands of people protested inside and outside Michigan's Capitol building as lawmakers passed "right-to-work" legislation
Thousands of people protested inside and outside Michigan's Capitol building as lawmakers passed "right-to-work" legislation

"RIGHT-TO-work" became the law in Indiana earlier this year--a state where, in the 1960s, some 40 percent of workers were union members. But in recent decades, Indiana has become a favored site of investment for nonunion employers like Subaru, Honda and Toyota. Earlier this year, the heavy equipment maker Caterpillar closed a unionized locomotive plant in Canada--and moved production to a new nonunion operation in Indiana.

Yet the "right-to-work" success in Michigan is even more shocking. At the beginning of 2012, the United Auto Workers (UAW) union was celebrating the 75th anniversary of the sit-down strike in Flint, Mich.--the key battle in the great labor upsurge of the 1930s. These days, however, the UAW, as a result of massive job losses, is a shadow of its former self, with 355,000 members, compared to 1.5 million in 1979.

Labor's decline, along with the Michigan Republicans' takeover of the governor's office and the state legislature in the 2010 elections cleared the way for a "right-to-work" sneak attack--Gov. Rick Snyder pushed the measure through with no notice during a lame-duck session.

Union members in Michigan and surrounding states responded with spirited protests, culminating on December 11 with a turnout of more than 10,000 demonstrators. Rank-and-file union members were prepared to take direct action to block the legislation.

But they were held back by labor leaders, who instead pointed them toward the 2014 elections. According to the mainstream website Politico, unions "are eyeing a large-scale counteroffensive against the conservative state leaders who have slashed away at union power since the 2010 midterm elections," aiming to replace them with Democrats.

The electoral focus was reinforced by President Barack Obama, who spoke to workers at a Michigan factory shortly before the legislature voted on "right-to-work":

We should do everything we can to keep creating good middle-class jobs that help folks rebuild security for their families. And by the way, what we shouldn't do--I've just got to say this--what we shouldn't be doing is trying to take away your rights to bargain for better wages and working conditions...The so-called "right-to-work" laws--they don't have to do with economics, they have everything to do with politics. What they're really talking about is giving you the right to work for less money.

IN FACT, Obama knows a lot about giving Michigan workers the "right to work for less money." Under terms of the federal government's 2009 bailout of the auto industry, UAW members saw tens of thousands of jobs disappear--autoworkers still on the job took huge concessions.

At GM, the government bailout was contingent on the union agreeing to a wage freeze, an end to bonuses and the elimination of work rules that limited speedups and helped ensure job security. The givebacks were worth between $1.2 billion and $1.3 billion per year. The union even gave up the right to strike when its contract expired in 2011.

These concessions followed a 2007 contract that cut pay for most new hires to $14 an hour--about half that for high-seniority workers. The result of all this is a reduction of hourly labor costs to the level of nonunion Toyota workers in the U.S.

The UAW, once the pacesetter for U.S. unions, has now given employers the green light to push down wages and benefits--and not only in manufacturing. Public-sector unions in Michigan were soon in the crosshairs, too.

Snyder--along with his Republican counterparts Scott Walker in Wisconsin and John Kasich in Ohio--used the economic crisis as the pretext to gut public-sector unions. Snyder's legislative allies beefed up Michigan's emergency financial manager law, which empowers the governor to impose an unelected boss to control local budgets. The early targets were the cash-strapped Detroit Public Schools and bankrupt cities like Pontiac.

Then came Detroit's turn. Mayor Dave Bing--a Democrat, like virtually all the city's politicians--used the threat of an emergency financial manager to extract deep concessions from municipal unions. In April, Bing negotiated a deal with Snyder to avoid the appointment of an emergency financial manager. Instead, they got the Detroit City Council to surrender much of its power to a Financial Advisory Board.

Now, fresh from his success with "right-to-work," Snyder has ordered a review of Detroit's finances that could result in the appointment of an emergency manager anyway.

Obama's and Bing's central role in driving anti-union policies in Michigan should underscore the fact that the attack on organized labor is thoroughly bipartisan.

The Democrats are unlikely to attempt frontal assaults on unions through "right-to-work" legislation or gutting public-sector bargaining rights, as Scott Walker did in Wisconsin. That's because the Democrats need unions to relate to their voting base and to provide troops and money at election time.

Yet if the Democrats seem reasonable, it's only because Republican scorched-earth policies have now become standard. Thus, Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn is attempting to renege on paying state workers promised raises. Quinn is also out to cut state workers' pension benefits, following the example of New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo. In California, Gov. Jerry Brown is also out to extract concessions from unions.

NO WONDER Snyder and the employer-backed anti-union groups thought that Michigan labor would be easy pickings for "right-to-work" legislation. Having presided over concession after concession in order to preserve labor-management partnership, the unions had surrendered much of their potential economic and social power. Politically, the unions mostly tailed the Democrats, who also want to reverse labor's historic gains.

Michigan unions did try to take independent political action by pushing for a ballot initiative that would have amended the state constitution to prohibit the passage of legislation restricting public-sector bargaining rights. Their model was labor's victory in a 2011 ballot initiative in Ohio, when voters overturned a Wisconsin-style attack on public-sector bargaining rights.

But where the Ohio fight was a straightforward battle over union rights, the Michigan debate was easier for employers to distort. The unions, they claimed, were trying to install special protections into the state constitution. The p.r. campaign worked: Despite the fact that labor spent $25 million on the effort, the union-backed measure was handily defeated.

So how should labor combat "right-to-work"? Fortunately, we have the example of a successful effort in 1978 by Missouri unions to head off "right-to-work" being imposed by a ballot measure. Jerry Tucker, the dissident UAW leader who passed away earlier this year, helped lead the effort on behalf of his union. Years later, he described the effort in an article written for Labor Notes. Building a broad labor-community alliance was key, Tucker explained:

The National Farmers Organization and leaders of the American Agricultural Movement participated in rallies and motorcades against RTW throughout rural Missouri.

Civil rights organizations stepped up, and national leaders such as Coretta Scott King visited Missouri. They emphasized that RTW hurts the underprivileged and minorities first and worst. Dozens of ministers took the message into the Black wards of Kansas City and St. Louis.

Women's groups such as NOW held rallies. Senior citizens were a bedrock, handling the brunt of canvassing on Election Day. Students, however, seemed to misunderstand the issue and were not successfully recruited.

A majority of the state's major officeholders from both parties spoke out against RTW, and many appeared at campaign functions. Urban Republicans, in particular, felt the deepening social heat.

Religious opposition to RTW was vital. It gave weight to the moral case--"Democratic decision-making in the workplace is just, and collective bargaining is good for society." It allowed labor to reach tens of thousands of Missourians through their churches.

Religious opposition drew much attention in the press, helping to create a "good guys" image for unions and the reverse for the right-to-workers. The RTW campaign, with business as its principal backer, began to look sinister.

But the most important factor in stopping the anti-union measure, Tucker wrote, was the activism of rank-and-file union members:

Rank-and-file unionists were the mainstay of the campaign. In fact, some couldn't seem to do enough, and at the outset thought their leaders weren't doing enough.

While the labor committee was still ramping up, members were acting on their own. They set up meetings, visited the merchants with whom they did business, painted signs on their cars, and worked the polls.

Many traveled from urban areas back to their childhood homes in rural Missouri to urge folks there to vote "no." On weekends, caravans of urban and suburban workers traveled to meet farmers and small-town shopkeepers to make their case against RTW.

Motorcyclists cruised the highways in bunches, with banners opposing RTW. Truckers used CB radios to maintain a steady stream of anti-RTW conversations on the Interstates.

In November, the "no" vote took 60 percent. The 1.6 million ballots cast set an off-year election record, with 60 percent of registered voters going to the polls. Right-to-work galvanized the big vote; Missourians cast 100,000 more ballots on the amendment than they did in statewide candidates' races.

New member organizing spiked upward for several years afterward.

Today's labor officials lack the strategic vision and organizational skills of Jerry Tucker, one of the outstanding labor leaders of recent decades. Even so, union members and supporters who want to fight "right-to-work" and anti-union forces can learn from the experience.

It's clear that the employers want to permanently cripple organized labor--and that politicians of both major parties are helping to advance that goal. Facing up to that fact is the first step in developing a new winning strategy for labor today.

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