Showdown in Michigan

The struggle to defend union power in the birthplace of the modern labor movement has all eyes focused on the capital of Michigan, reports Eric Ruder.

Michigan's Capitol building in Lansing (Matt Katzenberger)Michigan's Capitol building in Lansing (Matt Katzenberger)

THOUSANDS OF unionists and supporters of organized labor from across Michigan and the Midwest are descending on the state capital of Lansing on Tuesday, December 11, to take a stand against Republican lawmakers' drive to ram through anti-union "right-to-work" legislation.

If the effort to stop the legislation fails, Michigan--the site of some of the most important struggles of the modern-day labor movement--will become the 24th state to enact such anti-union laws.

With such high stakes, police began setting up barricades and shutting down streets around the Capitol building on Monday in response to the call issued last week to "Turn Lansing into Madison on Tuesday"--a reference to the winter 2011 uprising in Wisconsin against union-busting legislation proposed by Gov. Scott Walker.

Michigan's Republicans are pushing their own brand of anti-worker laws. Last Thursday, the state's Republican-controlled Senate and House voted for "right-to-work" legislation that allows workers in union-organized workplaces to opt out of paying their fair share of union dues. Republican Gov. Rick Snyder has promised to sign the bills into law, but the legislature's procedural rules require a five-day wait before the measures can be approved in the other chamber.

Snyder knew that he was unleashing a political firestorm when he threw his support behind the legislation. That's why the governor, who claims to be committed to "transparency" in government, didn't hesitate to green-light Republican legislators' sneak attack in introducing the proposal and voting on it the same day. "From floor introduction to passage, the entire process in the House took 90 minutes," said House Minority Leader Richard Hammel. "There were no committee hearings, no opportunity for debate."

Tuesday is also one of the final days of the legislature's lame-duck session. When it reconvenes next year, the Republican majority in the House will shrink from 64-46 to 59-51, making it more difficult to get "right-to-work" legislation passed in the next term.

On Sunday, unions and activists participated in a civil disobedience training at United Auto Workers (UAW) Local 600 headquarters in Dearborn in preparation for the attempt to stop lawmakers from ramming through the vote. The Dearborn union hall wasn't large enough to hold all the autoworkers, nurses, pastors, teachers, retirees, Teamsters and members of AFSCME, SEIU and the UFCW who turned out, according to one report.

The National Football League Players Association (NFLPA) issued a statement of support, as it did during Indiana's successful effort earlier this year to push through similar legislation. "Our leadership and players are always proud to stand with workers in Michigan and everywhere else," said George Atallah, the NFLPA's assistant executive director for external affairs. "We don't think voters chose this, and we don't think workers deserve this."

On Monday, registered nurses took to the steps of the Michigan Capitol building with red duct tape covering their mouths to protest a proposal that unionists rightly call the "right-to-work-for-less."

"We know we won't get fired if we speak out against unsafe practices [if we have a strong union]," said Katie Oppenheim, a nurse from Ann Arbor who works at the University of Michigan Health System. "This legislation is about one thing--silencing working people so corporations and millionaires...can have more power to increase their profits...When profits win, our patients get hurt."

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STATE LEGISLATORS and their conservative overlords have also been preparing for the December 11 showdown.

Some of Michigan's biggest corporate titans--such as Amway executive and occasional political candidate Dick DeVos, plus conservative business groups and think tanks funded by the right-wing billionaire Koch brothers--have seized on this moment as the culmination of a years-long battle to pass right-to-work legislation in Michigan.

Though Snyder had previously said right-to-work-for-less legislation wasn't part of his agenda, the slimming of the Republican majority in the next legislative session, combined with a setback to efforts to enshrine collective bargaining rights in the state's constitution, seems to have jolted the right-wing governor into action.

On Monday afternoon, state police announced that the eight protesters arrested while trying to push their way past police to get to the Senate floor during last Thursday's vote would face felony charges, instead of less-serious misdemeanors. Such criminalization of protest appears aimed at intimidating those who might attempt similar actions to stop or delay the vote on Tuesday.

UAW President Bob King promised that the Tuesday protest would be "the big one"--workers throughout Michigan and the Midwest are no doubt looking for labor leaders to draw the line here.

There's really no reason to hold anything back. The right has gone on the offensive in its drive to muzzle organized labor in one of its strongholds. But in the process, it has angered a large number of workers and their families, creating an army of people ready to risk arrest for what they believe in.

In a sign of how polarized the debate has become, Barack Obama, who on Monday visited to hail an investment in a Michigan manufacturing plant, was compelled to speak out against "right-to-work" legislation:

[W]hat we shouldn't be doing is trying to take away your rights to bargain for better wages. These so-called right-to-work laws, they don't have anything to do with economics. They have everything to do with politics.

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BUT REPUBLICAN legislators are ready to play hardball. For them, the aim is to starve unions of funds in order to cripple the labor movement's political advocacy in favor of Democrats.

This naked self-interest is all the more clear since none of the other arguments in favor of "right-to-work" laws hold any water. Such laws don't provide any rights or any work--other than the right to work for less.

Again and again, research has proven that "right-to-work" laws are correlated with lower wages--by an average of $1,500 per year--for union and nonunion workers. The laws also have no significant impact on the ability of states to attract employers, according to surveys. And finally, they don't improve unemployment rates or state job growth.

But Republicans are clearly intent on pushing the legislation through on a party-line vote--in fact, six Republicans in the House and four in the Senate voted against "right-to-work" legislation last week. What's more, the bill's sponsors have included in the legislation a $1 million appropriation for the purpose of state agency compliance--the inclusion of even this token appropriation makes the bill immune from being overturned in a statewide referendum.

The best strategy for stopping right-to-work-for-less legislation is to keep it from being passed in the first place. This will mean, as it did during last year's labor uprising in Wisconsin, a campaign of civil disobedience in and around the Capitol, backed up by the threat of strikes by teachers, autoworkers, nurses and others committed to defeating an anti-union law.

There is a danger that labor officials will try to promote the idea that little or nothing can be done to stop the legislation from passing on December 11--and therefore we have to focus on the 2014 elections to chase Snyder and other anti-worker legislators out of office.

This is dead wrong. Direct action and other militant tactics right now are the best hope for stopping "right-to-work" in its tracks. And as we saw in Wisconsin, the Democrats who talk tough now will attempt to twist popular anger at anti-worker laws into electoral campaigns for their own gain--without necessarily challenging the union-busting that produced that anger in the first place.

A key question will be whether King, as president of the UAW in the union's historic stronghold, will be prepared to match in deed what he called for in word earlier this year at the commemoration of the 75th anniversary of the Flint sit-down strike: "We'll be part of a broad coalition about nonviolent direct action to capture justice in America. We have to be willing to be threatened with arrest, to be part of marches and demonstrations and willing to stand up for the middle class and for social justice."

It's essential that these actions aren't just about rhetoric and image. The time is now to employ the time-tested strategies and tactics of the labor movement--direct action, occupation and strikes--in order to stop Corporate America's attack on our unions.