How the Capitol exploded
Last week, Lansing's cold war got hot
Published: December 12, 2012
"When making location decisions, businesses rate factors such as the quality of the regional workforce, the regulatory environment, and tax incentives before ever considering RTW laws," argues U-M's Roland Zullo.
One thing that's indisputable, though, argues Zullo, is the benefit unions bring to individual workers.
"Depending on the occupation, unionized workers earn wages that are 10 to 40 percent higher than their nonunion counterparts," he writes. "The positive differential for other forms of compensation, such as health care insurance and pensions, is even greater.
"Perhaps more important than economics, however, are matters involving justice. Nearly all union contracts feature an informal form of due process: a grievance procedure that ends in final binding arbitration through which unions resolve disputes over the contract and employer discipline. As such, in most union settings, an employer must show proof that a worker committed a wrongdoing in order to discharge them. By contrast, in a nonunion setting workers are 'at-will' and can be discharged for any reason (or none at all) that is not proscribed by federal law."
David Schultz — who teaches classes on privatization and public, private and nonprofit partnerships at the Hamline University School of Business in St. Paul, Minn. — wrote about the issue earlier this year.
Among other things he found that:
"Legislative debates on the issue are generally badly informed or woefully devoid of fact-based impartial evidence. Often studies are cited by organizations with clear political agenda. Groups such as the Cato Institute, the Mackinac Center, and the Chamber of Commerce argue that RTW laws produce lower unemployment rates for states. Conversely, the generally liberal Economic Policy Institute finds the opposite, and also asserts that RTW adversely impacts unionization and family incomes."
Shultz then went on to explore what he described as "more nuanced and independent research."
Such research in Oklahoma — which became an RTW state in 2001 — found "no evidence that RTW laws increased employment" there, but that wages did fall as a result. A study conducted by researchers at Hofstra University, that looked at the whole of the United States, "reached the same conclusion on both points."
Conversely, he reported, there was little evidence to support the claim that unions were badly damaged in states with RTW laws.
The bottom line that he landed on?
"RTW does not produce the economic benefits that its advocates claim, and instead the real justification has to rest upon its political aims."
It is no secret that in Michigan and elsewhere, organized labor focuses its political largesse on Democrats. Given that, the GOP only stands to benefit if union funds are depleted by RTW laws.
Here's where the nitty really meets the gritty in the rough and bumble of Michigan's political maneuverings.
It begins in 2011, when a newly elected Gov. Snyder springs what will become PA 4 — the controversial emergency manager law — on the state.
Passed by the GOP-controlled Legislature, the law — expanding the authority of the previous emergency financial managers — contains much that is considered objectionable by liberals. Many liberals and progressives consider it a direct attack on democracy, providing state-appointed bureaucrats with what critics calls near-dictatorial control over financially troubled municipalities and school districts. The fact that they are only appointed to manage in places where people of color are in the majority stirs opposition from civil rights groups.
And the provision that allows these managers to void contracts with public-sector unions prompts labor to rise up in opposition.
A coalition, backed primarily by union money, sets in motion a measure to repeal the law by referendum. Also on the ballot are two other union-financed measures, which seek to amend the state constitution.
The most significant of those is Proposal 2, which sought to enshrine in the constitution the right of unions to collectively bargain. Along with attempting to derail the threat PA 4 posed to unions, the proposal is also described a pre-emptive attempt to fend off any possible right-to-work legislation — even though Snyder had gone on record as saying such legislation wasn't on his "agenda," at least in part because it would prove to be too "divisive."
The problem with that public claim, says the AFL-CIO's Michalakis, is that the state's labor leaders were never able to get a commitment from Snyder that he would oppose right-to-work legislation if it landed on his desk.
There's a big difference between something's not on your agenda and guaranteeing that you'll oppose it. And so labor felt compelled to try to protect its interests through ballot measures.
The effort to repeal the emergency manager law succeeded Nov. 6, throwing a massive wrench into the governor's attempts to keep Detroit from becoming insolvent and forcing bankruptcy — something that would damage the entire state's credit rating and threaten the economic recovery that's taken place since Snyder has been at the helm.
Prop 2, on the other hand, went down in flames, losing 52 percent-48 percent. Proponents like Michalakis point to the fact that voters issued decisive "no's" on all the ballot measures, in part because of a well-funded effort to convince the public that proposals to amend the state constitution were a radical departure from the norm, rather than something the framers intended to be a relatively easy way for the public to check the power of the Legislature and executive branch.
Pundits and campaign operatives from across the spectrum, however, are characterizing the effort as a massive miscalculation on the part of labor.
"If you read what all the pundits and analysts are saying, the opinion is that it was a mistake for the unions to push Proposal 2," says the Mackinac Center's Spencer. "This is a battle the governor didn't want, but the unions pushed the battle anyway. Instead of showing how much clout they have at the ballot box, they instead showed how vulnerable they are. "
Mark Grebner, whose Lansing firm Practical Political Consulting works mainly for Democrats, described the situation between Snyder and labor as a sort of "cold war" that ended when labor launched its ballot measures.
"When one side starts shooting, the other side doesn't feel constrained to try and keep the peace," Grebner observes.
He equates labor's efforts to the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor:
"It might have seemed like a good idea at the time, but it didn't turn out so good for them."
Another Democratic consultant, Eric Foster, says labor would have been wiser to put the tens of millions of dollars it dumped into the ballot measures and spent it instead on targeted efforts aimed at helping Democrats regain a majority in the state House. President Obama's re-election campaign, which resulted in him decisively winning on his way to re-election, could have provided a template to achieve that Democratic majority, Scott contends. Instead, labor relied on a sort of retail politics, with much money spent on media ads, and failed miserably.
For his part, however, Foster says he thinks the GOP would have pushed RTW in its lame duck session, but that Snyder would have been less likely to go along with it knowing that he would have to be working with a Democratic majority in the House come January.
Bill Ballenger, editor of the well-respected newsletter Inside Michigan Politics, summed up his view of the situation this way:
"There's an old saying that goes, 'If you strike at a king, you better kill him.'" Snyder urged the unions not to push [Proposal 2], but the unions didn't trust him on right to work, so they went ahead with it, "and they got clobbered. Elections have consequences."
So, apparently, do political retribution and unbridled partisanship — especially for someone like Snyder, a businessman who rode into office on the promise that he was a bridge-building moderate.
There are indications that Snyder is knuckling under to pressure from far-right billionaires who are virulently anti-union — namely the Koch brothers (whose father helped found the John Birch Society and whose fortune is built on a foundation of oil refineries, petrochemicals and timber, among other things) and Dick DeVos, a failed Republican gubernatorial candidate and son of Amway co-founder Richard DeVos.
There might not be witnesses to say that these arch-conservative heavy hitters have been seen twisting the arms of the governor and some Republican legislators, but their fingerprints have reportedly surfaced.
As The Nation's John Nichols reported, "Americans for Prosperity — a group developed by ... billionaire campaign donors Charles and David Koch — was in the thick of things. AFP recruited conservatives to show up at the state Capitol in Lansing to counter union protests and prepared materials supporting the Michigan initiative, including a 15-page booklet titled 'Unions: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly: How forced unionization has harmed workers and Michigan.'"
In addition, reported Nichols, "Within minutes of the announcement by ... Snyder that Republicans would ram through the 'right to work' legislation, AFP was hailing the move in formal statements as 'the shot heard around the world for workplace freedom.'"
As for DeVos, Tim Skubik — the veteran politics columnist for MLive.com reported last week that the former Amway CEO has "worked tirelessly behind Gov. Rick Snyder's back to push Right to Work" by "making phone calls to Republican lawmakers strongly advising them to get on with passing this."
When someone as wealthy and powerful as DeVos talks, politicians tend to listen closely.
And that's the backstory for the havoc that broke out last week when the lame-duck Legislature rushed through two RTW bills without debate or public hearings. Labor turned out in force to protest — with more massive demonstrations planned for this week.
Democrats howled in protest, calling the ramrod approach a stain on democracy. Along with the speed with which they moved, and the complete lack of deliberation, the GOP leaders also attached appropriations to the bills, a parliamentary maneuver intended to protect the bills from being repealed by voters at the ballot box.
Members of Michigan's Democratic congressional delegation met with Snyder Monday morning, urging him to veto RTW if and when it hits his desk.
Following that meeting, Sen. Carl Levin issued a statement declaring, in part:
"The combined efforts of labor and management have been crucial to the rebound of our auto industry. That's why it is so disappointing that the governor and Republicans in the Michigan Legislature have chosen this moment to take this destructive step.
"I urge Governor Snyder to reconsider his support for this measure, which will splinter our state and do so much harm to its working families."
Snyder reportedly responded to those pleas with a Tweet:
"Freedom to work is all about creating more and better jobs in Michigan."
Leadership of the state's AFL-CIO issued this statement:
"If Governor Snyder continues to push this radical Tea Party legislation on behalf of millionaires it will tear apart the fabric of this state and result in years of contentious fights instead of being able to focus together on creating jobs and rebuilding the middle class."
And then President Obama, on a visit to Michigan, told a group of autoworkers what he thought about the issue.
"We should do everything we can to keep creating good middle-class jobs that help folks rebuild security for their families," Obama, according to published reports, said to Daimler workers. "What we shouldn't be doing is trying to take away your rights to bargain for better wages and working conditions."
"These so-called right-to-work laws, they don't have to do with economics, they have everything to do with politics," Obama continued. "What they're really talking about is giving you the right to work for less money."
The war is clearly on, and it's threatening to go nuclear.
Curt Guyette is Metro Times news editor. You can reach him at 313-202-8004 or firstname.lastname@example.org
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