LANSING, Mich. – With defeat in the Michigan Legislature virtually certain, Democrats and organized labor intend to make enactment of right-to-work laws as uncomfortable as possible for Gov. Rick Snyder and his Republican allies while laying the groundwork to seek payback at the polls.
Shell-shocked opponents of the laws spent the weekend mapping strategy for protests and acts of civil disobedience, while acknowledging the cold reality that Republican majorities in both the House and Senate cannot be stopped — or even delayed for long by parliamentary maneuvers. Leaders vowed to resist to the end, and then set their sights on winning control of the Legislature and defeating Snyder when he seeks re-election in 2014.
“They’ve awakened a sleeping giant,” United Auto Workers President Bob King told The Associated Press on Saturday at a Detroit-area union hall, where about 200 activists were attending a planning session. “Not just union members. A lot of regular citizens, non-union households, realize this is a negative thing.”
Right-to-work laws prohibit requiring employees to join a union or pay fees similar to union dues as a condition of employment. Supporters say it’s about freedom of association for workers and a better business climate. Critics contend the real intent is to bleed unions of money and bargaining power.
Hundreds of chanting, whistle-blowing demonstrators thronged the state Capitol last week as bills were introduced and approved hours later, without the usual committee hearings allowing for public comment. Even more protesters are expected Tuesday, when the two chambers may reconcile wording differences and send final versions to Snyder, who now pledges to sign them after saying repeatedly since his 2010 election the issue wasn’t “on my agenda.”
Republicans are betting any political damage will be short-lived. During a news conference with GOP leaders last week announcing their intent to press ahead with right-to-work measures, Snyder urged labor to accept the inevitable and focus on showing workers why union representation is in their best interest.
“Let’s move forward, let’s get a conclusion, let’s get an answer and get something done so we can move on to other important issues in our state,” he said.
On that point, at least, the governor won’t get his way. Unions and their Democratic allies say this means war.
Allowing employees to opt out of financially supporting unions while enjoying the same wages and benefits as members undermines the foundation of organized labor, they contend. A UAW bulletin described it as “the worst anti-worker legislation Michigan has ever seen.”
“You will forever remember the day when you thought you could conquer labor,” Sen. Coleman Young II, a Detroit Democrat and son of the city’s fiery late mayor, boomed during floor debate Thursday. “Be prepared to engage in the fight of your life.”
But for all the defiant rhetoric, the opposition faces tough odds.
State law forbids repealing spending bills through referendums, and Republicans made the right-to-work measures immune by attaching a $1 million appropriation. So the only apparent way to nullify the policy, once enacted, will be to seize statehouse control through the ballot box.
Even after losing five House seats in November, Republicans will retain majorities in both chambers for the next two years — during which time they expect voter attention to turn to other topics. They redrew district lines in their favor after the 2010 Census, boosting their long-term prospects.
Also, as Snyder noted, fewer than 20 percent of Michigan workers are union members. Organized labor rolls and influence have declined in recent years, emboldening Republicans to challenge unions even in their historic Rust Belt stronghold.
Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker survived a recall attempt after curtailing collective bargaining for most public employees. After Indiana enacted a right-to-work law this year, voters in November gave Republicans a legislative majority so large they can conduct business without any Democrats present. Snyder and GOP lawmakers already had chipped away at Michigan union rights, even forbidding school districts from deducting dues from teachers’ paychecks.
Another problem for opponents: Right-to-work has considerable voter support. A statewide phone survey of 600 likely voters conducted in late November by the Lansing firm EPIC-MRA found 54 percent favored the idea while just 40 percent opposed it, although they were evenly divided when asked whether Michigan should become the 24th state with such laws. The margin of error was plus or minus 4 percentage points.
Senate Majority Floor Leader Arlan Meekhof, straining to be heard over jeering opponents in the chamber’s gallery, argued last week that by enacting right-to-work, “we are announcing to the world that we are moving Michigan forward. We are for workplace fairness and equality and we are for job cretion.”
To go up against all those obstacles, unions and Democrats will need solid organization, steadfastness and a persuasive case.
Democratic U.S. Rep. Sander Levin, who as a state legislator in the 1960s sponsored the labor law that right-to-work measures would overturn, called for a “massive education campaign” to remind voters of unions’ role in building the middle class and explain how the new policy will weaken their ability to bargain for good wages and benefits.
“What’s at stake is the cooperative, constructive labor-management relations that have ripened over the last 15 to 20 years,” Levin said. “This governor is essentially saying that instead of collaboration, it’s going to be dog-eat-dog.”
Michigan Education Association President Steve Cook said Republicans pushed the one issue guaranteed to unite an often fractious labor movement.
Activists have filed a lawsuit claiming the state Open Meetings Act was violated when police temporarily barred doors to the Capitol during last week’s debate. Other legal challenges are being considered, opponents said. Union members distributed leaflets Saturday at a college basketball game in the Upper Peninsula city of Marquette.
That’s only the beginning, Cook said. While declining to discuss specific plans, he vowed labor would fight hard to unseat right-to-work supporters in 2014 and might try to recall some legislators even earlier.
“Whoever votes for this,” Cook said, “is not going to have any peace for the next two years.”