Ten thousand angry unionists gathered outside Michigan’s Capitol building on December 11, 2012, denouncing the sudden passage of so-called “right-to-work” legislation. Several dozen protesters sat down in the Capitol Rotunda, risking arrest, and more were outside the governor’s office. Three school districts were forced to close schools because so many teachers were taking the day off.
Despite the anger and the chants, the legislature finished its approval of the anti-union bills, and Governor Rick Snyder signed them the next day.
Michigan unionists had been shocked just seven days earlier, when Snyder announced that he would seek passage of the right-to-work measures. His legislative allies quickly did their part, passing the public- and private-sector bills without hearings as police used pepper spray to clear the Capitol of protesting union members.
Snyder had previously said right-to-work was too divisive and was therefore not on his agenda. Such laws outlaw union contracts that require all represented workers to pay dues or a comparable fee. Instead, they encourage employees to reap the benefits of a union contract – higher wages, better benefits, protection against unfair firing – without contributing to the organization that makes them possible. The real goal of right-to-work laws is simply to weaken unions.
United Auto Workers President Bob King, who has 151,000 members and 190,000 retirees in the state, said the governor’s about-face “blind-sided” him. But the plan to make Michigan the 24th right-to-work state was long brewing. With 17.5% union density, the fifth-highest in the country, and a record of voting for Democratic presidents, Michigan was a tempting target for such billionaire-funded national groups as Americans for Prosperity (bankrolled by the Koch brothers) and for the state’s home-grown billionaire Richard DeVos, of the Amway fortune.
Americans for Prosperity’s Michigan chapter quadrupled its spending in 2010, the year Snyder was elected, to $1.1 million. The Mackinac Center, a longtime right-wing think tank in the state, spent $5.7 million last year, and stepped up its game in December to support Snyder’s move. DeVos funds both groups.
Michigan Democratic Party Chair Mark Brewer dates the campaign for right-to-work to at least 2007, based on a video that shows former Michigan Republican Party Chair Ron Weiser speaking at a Tea Party meeting in August. Weiser, now finance chair of the Republican National Committee, describes meeting with DeVos, former Michigan Governor John Engler (now with the Business Roundtable) and representatives from Americans for Prosperity on a multi-year strategy to pass right-to-work in traditionally pro-labor Michigan.
Though Republicans had won solid control of the state government by January 2011, Michigan’s anti-union forces at first held off on right-to-work, perhaps warned by the tumult next door in Wisconsin that winter. Instead, they pursued a piecemeal strategy, appointing “emergency managers” to run financially troubled cities and throw out union contracts; taking away teachers’ automatic dues deductions; rescinding domestic partner benefits for public employees; defining university research assistants, who were organizing, as non-workers; and passing a host of other measures that wouldn’t rile everyone at once.
To head off right-to-work and to nullify these other laws that interfered with collective bargaining, the UAW’s Bob King, the Michigan Education Association and other union leaders developed a plan to pass a constitutional amendment, Proposal 2, that would have made collective bargaining a constitutional right in Michigan.
But Proposal 2 went down to defeat, 57% to 42%. It fell victim to a $30 million disinformation campaign, with ads citing the sanctity of the constitution and warning that the bill would prevent school districts from firing child molesters.
Campaign leaders for the pro-union amendment were reluctant to specify any particular laws that Proposal 2 would have outlawed, according to Mark O’Keefe, a staffer for the Detroit Federation of Teachers – presumably afraid that any specifics were likely to offend someone. O’Keefe thought the vagueness “created uncertainty and mistrust” among voters, and that a ballot measure with a simple ban on right-to-work would have stood a better chance. That is one of several theories under discussion among reeling activists.
While voters in Ohio repealed an anti-public-union measure through a referendum in 2011, a maneuver by Michigan legislators was aimed at preventing such a vote against right-to-work: they attached appropriations to the right-to-work bills, and in Michigan, money bills can’t be repealed by the voters.
Meanwhile, the day after right-to-work was signed into law, Michigan’s House of Representatives gave some idea of the full scope of its right-wing agenda. One day before the Newtown, Conn., school massacre, Michigan’s House passed a bill allowing concealed weapons to be carried in public schools.
Jane Slaughter is editor of Labor Notes. A longer version of this article, with a fuller analysis, is online at Labornotes.org.