By Bruce Vail
Several hundred labor activists gathered last week in Lansing, Mich., for a frigid but boisterous protest of Gov. Rick Snyder’s State of the State address. Their intention was not to disrupt the speech, but to remind Snyder that he has awakened a deep and abiding anger among the state’s labor leaders and their allies. Snyder can count on many more such reminders in the coming months, Michigan labor sources say, as unions carry out plans to reverse the anti-worker initiatives Snyder has sponsored in the last six weeks, and push back against the big business forces that stand behind him.
Some of the Lansing demonstrators arrived at the capitol building in buses provided by the United Automobile Workers (UAW). The union is prepared to take a prominent role in the efforts against Snyder, UAW President Bob King tells Working In These Times, but is concentrating now on building broad coalitions to carry the fight through the 2014 elections and beyond. “We’re doing broad strategy discussions, both inside the UAW and elsewhere,” on how best to reverse the so-called “right-to-work” legislation that Snyder signed into law last month, King reports. But UAW’s goals go well beyond defeating the narrow labor legislation, he says, and include pushing back against Snyder’s initiatives that undermine women’s rights, civil rights, education and the environment.
“It’s not just labor, it’s the whole middle class,” that is suffering from Snyder’s efforts, adds Bill Black, legislative director for Michigan Teamsters Joint Council 43. Since the passage of the “right-to-work” law in December, Republican state legislators have rammed through other measures that have angered progressive groups around the state, he says.
King agrees. “There is a tremendous anger out there. People feel that the governor has lied to them. He ran for office as a moderate but has been behaving as a right-wing zealot,” King says. “And it’s not just right-to-work. He signed a bill that is an attack on women’s rights… He wants to raise the tuitions… It goes on. Right-to-work is minor compared to all the injustices that the workers are facing,” the UAW leader explains.
One reason UAW wants to focus on a broader fight in Michigan, King indicates, is that the union is somewhat insulated from direct impact by Snyder’s new law. The union reached contract agreements with the big car manufacturers in 2011, and those pacts will not expire until 2015. Since the Michigan law only goes into effect when existing contracts expire, UAW will not face the full impact of the law on its Michigan members until 2015, says King, adding that other, smaller contracts will expire in 2013 and 2014, but the impact should be minimal. The union is already engaged in shop floor organizing and education among existing UAW members, and the union expects these efforts will prevent any mass exodus of dues-payers.
King’s expectations are well-founded, says Jim Robinson, director of the United Steelworkers (USW) regional district that covers nearby Illinois and Indiana. In early 2012, Indiana passed a so-called “right-to-work” law of its own, which became effective for USW steel workers in September, when the key national steel-making contract expired. However, Robinson says, the USW has seen almost no loss of membership since the law took effect. “To my knowledge, we haven’t lost any members” among the 12,000 to 15,000 Indiana steel workers, he reports. “We talk to the members, and they say the same things now that they said last year and the year before.” When it comes to paying union dues, Robinson says, “They understand the value of the union and they don’t want to be freeloaders.”
USW is pushing a legal challenge to the Indiana law now, and Michigan unions will be doing the same thing, according to King and Black. A large team of lawyers has been assembled to craft multiple legal attacks on the Michigan law, they say, but none of the unions are ready to talk about legal strategy in public.
King stresses that UAW’s goals are much broader than simply turning back the Michigan labor law. A necessary step to any real progress on issues like civil rights and educational opportunity will be to remove Snyder from the governor’s mansion and return Democratic majorities to the legislature, he says, and UAW is in close consultation with other unions—particularly USW and the Service Employees International Union (SEIU)—for a 2014 elections strategy to accomplish this. But even this won’t be enough, according to King. “I look at a place like Brazil to see what we can learn from them,” he says. “There, it is union people who run for office and win. And what happens? They have a booming economy and they have brought 30 million people out of poverty. … Only a broad movement can bring change like that.”
Bruce Vail is a Baltimore-based freelance writer with decades of experience covering labor and business stories for newspapers, magazines and new media. He was a reporter for Bloomberg BNA’s Daily Labor Report, covering collective bargaining issues in a wide range of industries, and a maritime industry reporter and editor for the Journal of Commerce, serving both in the newspaper’s New York City headquarters and in the Washington, D.C. bureau. This report first appeared on the Working In These Times blog.