December 12, 2012

Organized labor takes hit in Michigan

Protests notwithstanding, Republican Gov. Rick Snyder signs 'right to work' measures.

By Michael A. Fletcher and Sean Sullivan / The Washington Post

Michigan enacted far-reaching legislation Tuesday that threatens to cripple the power of organized labor in a state that was a hub of union might during the heyday of the nation's industrial dominance.

An anti right-to-work protester and a pro right-to-work protestor yell at each other outside of Michigan's state capitol building in Lansing
click image to enlarge

A union activist, left, goes jaw to jaw with a “right to work” proponent during an emotional rally in Lansing, Mich., Tuesday after the Republican-led legislature gave final approval to “right to work” legislation.

REUTERS/Rebecca Cook


The Maine Legislature has considered "right to work" legislation for the last couple of years but has taken no action.

A 2011 bill, L.D. 309, was supposed to have come up for a vote but was tabled when the Labor, Commerce, Research and Economic Development Committee said it needed more time to consider the proposal.

The Maine State Employees Association called a 2012 version of the "right to work" bill "a bargaining table issue" and said the Legislature should not interfere with the negotiation process.

In April, the Maine House of Representatives tabled the right to work bill. The legislation would only have affected the public sector.

– Press Herald staff

As thousands of angry union members shouted their opposition outside the state Capitol in Lansing, the Republican-controlled legislature completed work on two measures to ban unions from requiring workers to pay membership dues. Gov. Rick Snyder, a Republican, then signed them into law Tuesday evening.

The "right to work" effort illustrates the power of Republicans to use state legislative majorities won in 2010 to pursue their policy preferences, even after losing a bitter presidential election.

The defeat is devastating for organized labor, which for decades has been waging an uphill battle against declining membership and dwindling influence. But it also strikes at the roots of a Democratic Party that relied on unions for financial support and to marshal voters for President Obama's reelection.

The new law comes nearly two years after Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, a Republican, began a push to curb collective-bargaining rights for public employees. That effort triggered a failed effort to recall Walker.

At the same time, a well-funded campaign to curtail union power swept through several other Republican-controlled states in the industrial Midwest.

Indiana followed Wisconsin and passed laws that limited the reach of organized labor. Lawmakers in Ohio also passed legislation that curtailed collective-bargaining rights of public-sector unions, but voters overturned it.

In crafting Michigan's measure, supporters avoided some tactical errors from earlier efforts. The measure is attached to an appropriations bill, which exempts it from being taken to a referendum. And it excludes firefighters and police officers, groups that were critical in overturning Ohio's law.

Proponents call their win in Michigan especially significant because the state is the birthplace of one of the country's most powerful labor groups, the United Auto Workers. Founded in 1935, the union organized autoworkers, winning wages and benefits that transformed assembly-line work into solid middle-class jobs.

"This is really a message to every other state that is a closed union shop, that if you do it here you can do it everywhere else," said Scott Hagerstrom, Michigan director of Americans for Prosperity. The group is supported by industrialists Charles and David Koch, billionaires who have pushed for anti-union and other conservative measures.

Supporters predicted that the new law will be a boon to economic growth in an era of global competition. But unions say the measure will starve them of money, weakening their ability to bargain for their members and undercutting their ability to support Democrats, who typically back their causes.

Labor leaders and Democratic state legislators said they had requested that Obama weigh in on the labor fight. They asked the White House to issue a public statement last week declaring the president's opposition to the legislation, and for him to refer to the labor fight in his remarks Monday during a visit to Redford, Mich.

"You know, these so-called right-to-work laws, they don't have to do with economics. They have everything to do with politics," Obama said. "What they're really talking about is giving you the right to work for less money."

Labor Department figures show that unionized workers earn more and have better benefits than their non-union counterparts. But the number of American workers who are in labor unions is in sharp decline.

In Michigan, the share of unionized workers has dropped from 28.4 percent to 17.5 percent since 1985. Meanwhile, the nation's struggle to hold on to manufacturing jobs and the travails of the auto industry made Michigan an economic basket case long before the recession. Unemployment in the state peaked at 14.2 percent and now stands at 9.1 percent, far above the national average.

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