Ten Thousand Aghast as 'Right to Work' Passes in Michigan

Nurses circled the rotunda in the Michigan state Capitol in Lansing December 11. Republicans hurriedly voted in right to work during the lame-duck session, before losing five seats in January. Photo: United Steelworkers.

Union protesters in front of the Michigan Capitol today knocked down an enormous tent erected by Americans for Prosperity, the Koch-brothers-funded group that helped bring right to work to the state. State troopers arriving on horseback were helpless, bringing to mind images of Humpty Dumpty and all the king’s men.

Several dozen protesters were sitting 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 called off for the day.

Four giant inflatable rats in the 10,000-person crowd were named for prominent Republican politicians and their richest backer.

But despite the anger and the chants, the legislature made it official. Governor Rick “The Nerd” Snyder was expected to sign right-to-work bills tomorrow. Such laws give workers covered by union contracts the right to opt out of paying dues, thus allowing freeloading and breaking up solidarity.


Michigan unionists were shocked last Tuesday when Snyder announced his support for right to work. His legislative allies quickly did their part, passing the needed public and private sector bills last week as police used Mace to clear the Capitol of protesting union members.

Snyder had previously said right-to-work was too divisive and not on his agenda. Such laws outlaw union contracts that require all represented workers to pay dues, allowing members to resign and depleting union treasuries. 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 percent 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 (the Koch brothers) and for the state’s home-grown billionaire, Richard DeVos of the Amway fortune.

Writing in a blog for The Nation, Lee Fang shows that 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 last week to support Snyder’s move. DeVos funds both groups.

Long Time Coming

Michigan Democratic Party Chair Mark Brewer dates the campaign for right to work to at least 2007. A video shows former Michigan Republican Party Chair Ron Weiser speaking to 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), representatives from Americans for Prosperity, and Frank Keating, former governor of Oklahoma, which passed right to work in 2001. (Here the CEO of Oklahoma's Chamber of Commerce admits he can't name any companies that moved to Oklahoma because of right to work.)

Weiser: “We hired a political consultant, and I invested a bunch of money and time, and I was working on that full-time from October [2007] until March [2008]…. [After meeting with the above-named players], what we determined was that to win that election, and to be sure we were gonna win it, we couldn’t have a governor that was against it. So we decided to wait. Wait until we had a governor. Now we have a legislature and we have a governor.”

Those elements were in place by January 2011. But Snyder and the Republican majority in the legislature 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 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 a host of other measures that wouldn’t rile everyone at once.

Attempt to Head Off Right to Work

To head off right to work and to nullify all the laws that interfered with collective bargaining, the UAW’s King and other union leaders developed an offensive plan, to pass a constitutional amendment. Proposal 2, on the ballot last month, would have made collective bargaining a constitutional right in the state.

But Proposal 2 went down to defeat decisively, 57 to 42 percent. 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 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 specific was likely to offend someone. O’Keefe thought the vagueness “created uncertainty and mistrust” among voters, and that a simple ban on right-to-work would have stood a better chance.

The campaign seemed to come from nowhere, in any case. It was not the result of discussion within the union base. Community allies were approached after the decision was made.

And Ray Holman, legislative liaison for the UAW’s big state employees local, thinks the proactive strategy was actually a disadvantage. He contrasted the defeat with last year’s victory in Ohio, where voters saved collective bargaining rights by repealing Senate Bill 5. “They had an advantage because rights were taken away,” Holman said right after the vote. “Here it was a harder climb. If they passed right-to-work and then we tried to repeal it, we’d have a better chance.”

He probably won’t have the chance to find out. Legislators attached appropriations to the right-to-work bills, and money bills can’t be repealed by the citizens, in Michigan.

At the same time, though, O’Keefe noted that pre-election polls showed union members backing Proposal 2 by just two-thirds. “If we only get two-thirds within the unions, it’s not surprising we don’t get a majority overall,” he said.

Who’s to Blame?

Some now want to blame Bob King for Snyder’s initiative. If he hadn’t demonstrated to the world that unions aren’t that popular in Michigan, they say, Snyder might not have gotten the right-to-work idea. In addition, King angered Snyder by going for Proposal 2 even though Snyder asked him not to.

But it didn't take the defeat of Proposal 2 to alert Republicans to right to work, nor any desire for personal revenge on Snyder’s part. The Nerd, as he likes to be known, doesn’t have that personality. More likely he moved now because the balance of votes in the legislature will shift in January. Though they retained a majority in both houses, Republicans lost five seats in the House in November, and not all Republicans have been voting with the majority on right to work.

Stepping back, though, it is possible to partly blame the victim of this latest assault. The UAW is the leading union in Michigan, and it is the union that, over the last generation, led the way nationally on concessions of all kinds, from speedup on the job to labor-management participation schemes to two-tier pay. Though many remain loyal, it’s impossible to claim that the UAW is popular with its members.

At today’s rally, Teamsters President James Hoffa, who’s from Michigan, said the way back for unions will be a long fight. The slide down has been long, too, and now it’s accelerating.

A version of this article appeared in Labor Notes 406, January 2013. Don't miss an issue, subscribe today.
Jane Slaughter is a former editor of Labor Notes.


Dexter Haney | 12/24/12

The term "surprise attack" is being used to describe the passage of RTW legislation in Michigan. It was only a surprise, apparently, to those who were responsible for defending against such legislation namely, the AFL-CIO, union establishment political action reps and the Democrats. Were all these folks out to lunch for the two weeks leading up to the vote? Some observers have stated that the capital was over-run with lobbyists supporting, and pushing hard for, RTW. Where were our people?
And what was the response to the legislation? The response was to send mourners to the funeral to march around in the cold, chanting the same old slogans that have no action to back them up. It was the same pathetic response that failed in Wisconsin.
Where are the mass resignations/firings of those responsible for being "surprised" by this fiasco? The AFL and other union officials who facilitated this train wreck (and the one in Wisconsin) should be thrown out of their offices and told never to return. That way the members can do what they know needs to be done... disrupting the bosses' ability to extract profit long enough for them to understand that messing with us is going to be costly. That's the only thing that has ever made them slow their constant drive towards the bottom.

Hey There 1 | 12/14/12

The Postal Workers are also under attack. The groundwork has been laid to privatize the Postal SeHR2309 proposed by Representative Darrell Issa may be heard in the House this DecemberHR2309 proposed by Representative Darrell Issa may be heard in the House this December

Issa claims he is striving to save the USPS yet he is ignoring expenses that can be deleted without disrupting the service.
#1. The Postal Accountable and Enhancement Act needs to be rescinded. In 2006 the PAEA signed by Bush, mandated that the USPS fund 75 years of retiree health benefits in 10.
#2. Overpayments of 50 to 75 Billion the USPS made to the Civil Service RetirementService should be returned.
#3. Overpayments the USPS made to FERS need to be retrieved.
#4.The USPS needs to charge more for delivering UPS parcels to places UPS don’t.
#5. Adjust the ratio of managers to workers.
#6 Quit giving deep discounts to large businesses. Issa’s solution is to cut the workforce by at least 100,000, and make Postal Workers’ wages and benefits depend on a separate board when a contract isn’t agreed upon. This is a case where Issa’s cure would cause the death of the USPS as a public service and have it revived as a business with lower paid workers, higher rates and less service. .http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=09ybkkiH2Ho
S1789, sponsored by Lieberman, passed in the Senate, but not in the House,would cut 100,000 jobs with the USPS when we don’t need to have more unemployed workers. S1789 would decrease compensation for injured workers and end it for those over 65, when we don’t need to take away compensation or lower compensation for injured workers. It would weaken the unions which promote a “living wage” at a time when we don’t need to add more people to the “working poor”, S1789 would close smaller post offices (some have already closed), and slow mail delivery by closing 200+ distribution centers.
In 2006 Congress voted to have the USPS fund 75 years of retiree health benefits in 10 amounting to 5.5 Billion a year.
Saddled with funding 5.5 Billion a year that had nothing to do with mail delivery, the USPS could no longer have it’s revenue =costs as it had done until 2006.
If this bill is passed or HR2309 the USPS will end up virtually privatized with lower wages and benefits for its ’workers, a scaled down and overworked workforce, more mail services contracted out, less services for the public including curbside service in place of home delivery.
This is how the Post Office could end up privatized if HR2309 were passed.
Management is replaced if they cannot successfully restructure Postal Service finances when the Postal Service fails to pay its bills for more than 30 days, a receivership-style authority takes over for USPS management with an explicit mandate to cut costs while maintaining universal service.

hermanrosenfeld | 12/12/12

Just sending my condolences – this is a tough blow, but as Jane notes in her comments the groundwork has been laid, partly by the failure of the union movement to build confidence and some belief in the membership and the rest of the working class that they stand for something.

In Ontario, we could very well face a similar challenge: there will probably be a spring provincial election and the provincial Tories have featured a Right to Work policy in their platform (and, they could very well win).

Dexter Haney | 12/24/12

Learn the lessons from the US and do NOT depend on elected officials to defend or advance your rights and protections. Make it clear to them, and your union leaders, that workers will exact a price from capital if they move forward with RTW. Maybe a little work stoppage somewhere before it gets introduced will make the point that it isn't worth it.

Dexter Haney | 12/24/12

Yes, they attached funding to it, making it impervious to recall. The lesson here is that you can't rely on the legislature and the law to protect you from the legislature and the law. Laws don't make unions, workers do and the sooner we all realize that the faster we will stop the attacks. It used to be illegal to join a union and they flourished in spite of that fact.
If we keep "outsourcing" our fight to the Democrats, we get what the Democrats want us to get... just enough to keep us sending them our money and votes

Hans Castorp | 12/11/12

Bob King and the UAW are champions of cutbacks, givebacks, and two-tier wage schemes.

If the UAW was actually fighting for auto workers rather than for car company profits, it's likely things might never have come to this.

Dexter Haney | 12/24/12

I'm not going to defend BK because I don't know enough about the UAW but... externalizing the leadership and "the UAW" from its members is part of the larger problem. Workers have been told for years (mostly by its "leadership") that "the union" is here to help you and all you have to do is remit your dues on a regular basis. The service model has reduced membership in your union to a transactional relationship and the bosses are exploiting that in anti-union messaging.
Historically, workers were exploited and stopped working. They showed their strength and bosses came to accept (grudgingly) that the representatives of those workers had the ability and willingness to unleash them when needed. Now, the bosses know the representatives have little or no power or willingness to do anything accept try to cut the "least-worst" deal and live to concede another day. There are no financial consequences for the bosses for doing what they do so why not do it?
Having been at the table as a rep, I was all to aware of this dynamic. I was powerless if the workers were not prepped and trained to take action in the face of cuts and concessions.
Things will turn around when, and only when, workers take responsibility for their own lives and how they respond to crisis. Good example: Detroit Water and Sewer workers, who were facing extinction and went on strike even though their union leadership (at the state level) told them to go back to work. They stopped the worst of the attacks and actually made some progress. It isn't a worker's paradise by any means but they put the boss on notice that they aren't going to be pushed around or tied up by their supposed "leaders".