How the Capitol exploded
Last week, Lansing's cold war got hot
Published: December 12, 2012
Editor's Note: This is an updated version of the story that appears in this week's print edition of the Metro Times.
Michigan is on the verge of doing something that would have been absolutely unthinkable even a few years ago.
Unless there is a dramatic turnaround, this state — a place that helped give birth to the modern labor movement, a cornerstone in the building of the American middle class — is very likely to become the 24th state to enact some form of so-called "right to work" law that will put already embattled unions in an even more precarious position.
Some, on both the left and the right, say that the unions themselves are at least partly to blame. These observers point to what they describe as a monumental tactical error made by big labor when it poured millions of dollars into ballot measures that went before voters in November, effectively posing a direct challenge to the policies of Gov. Rick Snyder.
In doing so, labor both exposed some of its own weakness and aroused the ire of a governor who had professed to be moderate, spurring him to side with the reactionary forces in his Republican Party.
The characterization of recent events is a matter of some dispute.
What can't be disputed, however, is that conservative forces in Michigan have been pursuing the goal of "right to work" for decades.
Until now, that goal has been unattainable. But in recent days we've witnessed a convergence of factors that amounted to a sort of perfect political storm.
Previously, Gov. Snyder was on record as saying that "right to work" wasn't part of his "agenda" because it is such a divisive issue. Instead of creating massive conflict over RTW, he said he preferred to pursue other policies to help Michigan's economy recover.
Say what you want about the governor, but there's no denying that he was absolutely correct about RTW being divisive. More than 10,000 union members and their supporters showed up at the Capitol on Tuesday in a last-ditch effort to prevent final legislative approval of two RTW bills — one for the private sector and one for public employees (with an expected "carve out" for police officers and firefighters). The massive demonstration failed to stop the legislation from being rammed through. The two bills now only need the governor's signature to become law.
Last week, state police attempted to keep protesters out of the Capitol as the RTW bills were being rushed through both houses. Two injunctions had to be issued in order to open the way for the public, who found that GOP staff members had occupied seats.
It was an ugly and disgraceful scene unworthy of a democracy.
Let's get one thing straight: There is something absolutely Orwellian about calling the bills pushed through the Legislature "right to work" laws.
"To begin, the term 'right to work' ... is a misnomer," writes Roland Zullo, a research scientist at the University of Michigan's Institute for Labor and Industrial Relations.
In a paper titled "What 'Right to Work' Would Mean for Michigan," Zullo goes on to explain: "RTW has nothing to do with the right of a person to seek and accept gainful employment."
Instead, it has to do with the ability of labor unions to negotiate what are called "security agreements" with employers.
Kenneth G. Dau-Schmidt, a professor of labor and employment law at Indiana University's Maurer School of Law, emailed the Metro Times a detailed opinion piece he previously wrote explaining exactly what it is these agreements entail and why they are important:
"These agreements require that, as a condition of employment, all employees in the bargaining unit either join a union and pay full dues, or at a minimum pay the union a smaller 'agency fee' equal to the cost of representing the employee. The employee doesn't have to join the union, or even pay full dues; he or she just has to compensate the union for the union's cost in representing the employee."
That fact is often lost in the flood of false claims made by proponents of RTW. An op-ed piece penned by state Rep. Mike Shirkey (R-Clark Lake) is a perfect example.
"Michigan is about to liberate hard working Michigan citizens from the
unnatural burden of forced union membership."
The truth of the matter is, no such liberation is necessary. As Dau-Schmidt noted, "Under federal law, unions are required to represent all of the employees in their bargaining unit, whether the employee is a union member or not."
"Federal law," he added, "also ensures that no one can be required to join a union." (The emphasis is his.)
What RTW laws really do is relieve employees of the obligation to compensate unions for bargaining on their behalf, and for representing their interests if there is a cause for filing a grievance.
That is why critics of RTW sometimes derisively refer to it as the "right to be a freeloader" law.
> Email Curt Guyette