In Michigan, A Conservative Governor Takes Careful Aim at Unions

Rick Snyder is at the center of the newest battle in the GOP war against labor unions that has raged across the industrial Midwest in recent years.

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Bill Pugliano / Getty Images

Union members from around the country rally at the Michigan State Capitol to protest a vote on Right-to-Work legislation Dec. 11, 2012 in Lansing, Michigan.

When he ran for governor of Michigan in 2010, Rick Snyder adopted an endearingly dweebish slogan: “One Tough Nerd.” The moniker, which was cooked up by the eccentric Republican adman Fred Davis and still serves as Snyder’s Twitter handle, sought to make a virtue out of the candidate’s colorless persona. In a state where ineffectual leadership in both the public and private sectors has exacerbated a dizzying economic tailspin, Snyder’s C-suite resume helped him win.

Snyder marketed himself as a tough conservative, but not as a confrontational one. He didn’t bow to the widening Republican orthodoxy on issues like high-speed rail or voter ID. While fellow Midwestern governors Scott Walker and John Kasich led assaults on collective-bargaining rights in neighboring Wisconsin and Ohio, Snyder carefully slalomed around the issue, calling it “divisive.” And no wonder: Michigan, the birthplace of the United Auto Workers and a cradle of organized labor, has an unmatched organized-labor tradition.

But now Snyder is at the center of the newest battle in the GOP war against labor unions that has raged across the industrial Midwest in recent years. On Dec. 11, the state passed a pair of sweeping bills designed to cripple unions by barring the requirement that workers pay dues as a condition of employment. The freshman governor signed the controversial bills the evening of Dec. 12, making Michigan the 24th state to adopt so-called “right-to-work” laws.

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The fight is not entirely one of Snyder’s choosing. Across the Rust Belt, unions’ clout has been crumbling — even in Michigan, where a referendum to enshrine collective-bargaining rights in the state’s constitution was soundly defeated in November. Anti-union forces sensed weakness, and the state’s Republican-controlled legislature pushed a package of right-to-work bills. According to one new poll, 51% of Michiganders back installation of a right-to-work law, compared to just 41% who oppose it.

Even as fellow freshman governors in neighboring states championed anti-union legislation, Snyder has long maintained that such measures were not on his agenda. Now a politician who pledged to serve as a pragmatist is in the tricky position of scaling back union rights in a labor stronghold. Unions say capitulated under pressure from Republican lawmakers and wealthy donors like Michigan-based billionaire Dick DeVos, a longtime proponent of right-to-work legislation who one Democratic official cast as the “puppeteer pulling the strings” behind the push.

Snyder has said he felt compelled to take a stand once the legislature muscled the issue to the fore. “That issue was on the table whether I wanted it to be there or not,” Snyder said last week. “And given that it is on the table, I think it is appropriate to be a good leader and to stand up and take a position on this issue.”

The term “right to work,” coined by foes of union influence, is somewhat misleading. It has little to do with whether workers are eligible for employment. Instead, it restricts unions’ ability to require employees to pay union dues if they work for a unionized employer. Unions argue that anyone who benefits from union representation should foot his or her share of the cost, while proponents of right-to-work legislation counter that right-to-work laws mitigate costs for employers, boosting the state’s ability to lure potential business and create jobs.

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There is some truth to the cost argument. In 2010, union workers made an average of 28% more per week than non-unionized workers, according to a study by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Right-to-work lightens the wallets of unions as well. A study by the conservative Heritage Foundation found that right-to-work laws in Michigan would cost unions some $46 million per year. But there is mixed research on whether, as Snyder argues, right-to-work will boost employment in Michigan. On a trip to a Detroit factory on Monday, Barack Obama told autoworkers that right-to-work was a political tactic masquerading as economics. “What they’re really talking about is giving you the right to work for less money,” Obama said.

Roland Zullo, a labor expert at the University of Michigan, has noted that salaries of union and non-union workers alike are lower in states with right-to-work laws. “This is the hidden agenda behind the [right-to-work] effort: strengthen the hand of employers by passing a law that weakens the vanguard institutions promoting economic and social equity for wage earners,” Zullo wrote in a paper. “In this sense, [right-to-work] is both a bald attack on organized labor as well as a veiled assault on wage earners.”

The controversial measures incensed Snyder’s opponents. More than 10,000 people thronged the capital in Lansing on Tuesday, brandishing signs like “Kill the Bill” and “One Term Nerd” and locking arms in a tense standoff with baton-wielding police decked out in riot gear. According to reports, pepper spray and tear gas were deployed against a handful of protesters, some of whom tore down a tent outside the capitol belonging to the Koch-funded conservative organization Americans for Prosperity. In Grand Rapids, the hometown of DeVos, the heir to the Amway fortune, protesters marched against the bills, their mouths covered in duct tape.

The timing of the bills’ passage further rankled Democrats. Republicans control both chambers of the Michigan legislature, but they lost five House seats in November and their grip on the chamber is considered tenuous. Democrats say there was no guarantee a right-to-work measure would pass muster in Lansing when the new legislature next year. So the GOP jammed right work through in a lame-duck session. In addition, they attached the bills to appropriations, thereby safeguarding against threat of a ballot referendum to overturn the law.

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While opponents assailed Snyder, the governor has been engaged in a delicate p.r. game. In contrast to Walker, who made the fight against collective bargaining a trademark of his governorship, and Kasich, whose pell-mell plunge into the fight over collective bargaining resulted in a sharp rebuke at the polls, Snyder has taken a shrewd approach to the longstanding conservative crusade against unions.

First, he picked the right opponent. Instead of attacking collective bargaining, which strips workers of their rights, he frames the fight as an effort to maximize workers’ freedom and bolster Michigan’s moribund economy, using anodyne terms like “freedom of association” and “freedom of choice” to underpin his arguments. The proposal “does not end collective bargaining in Michigan. That bears repeating,” he wrote. “Under freedom to work, Michiganders still have a guaranteed right to collective bargaining, as protected in federal law.”

“I think it’s important to make a distinction with Wisconsin and Ohio,” Snyder told MSNBC on Tuesday. “That was about collective bargaining. That was about the relationship between employers and unions. This has nothing to do with that. Right-to-work has to do with the relationship between unions and workers.” And while the Badger and Buckeye State bills targeting public-sector unions, Michigan’s legislation deals with both.

Snyder’s comments about the labor movement — “an important part of Michigan’s fabric,” he wrote on his blog — have been conciliatory, even as he seeks to undermine its power. What’s more, Snyder has been careful not to offend sympathetic groups. The bills exempt police and firefighters, public workers who command widespread support. In Ohio, labor activists stoked opposition to Kasich’s collective-bargaining initiative by playing up the impact on cops and firemen. Snyder learned from his colleague’s mistake.

What’s not clear is whether his approach will spare him the ire of his constituents in the long run. Protesters are already making the prospect of recalling Snyder into a rallying cry. As the backlash builds, Michigan is about to find out how tough their nerd can be.

MORE: Why Is Indiana’s ‘Right to Work’ Law Such a Big Deal?

448 comments
kbanginmotown
kbanginmotown

"In Michigan, A Conservative Governor Takes Careful Aim at Unions"

...in much the same way as I take careful aim at cigarette butts in urinals...

BenevolentLawyer
BenevolentLawyer

I have found that after the FAUX election coverage, and the nonsense that was sold to us about the "President in making-Mitt Romney"-- under the pretext of fair reporting, I have little interest in the media. Yes, I know the election coverage is past, BUT so many, including some folks here kept on talking about Romney's PIVOT to the center, when he was clearly LYING. His policies remained the same on his site, and verbally he continued to LIE and LIE, and LIE.  

For many years, I have known that the Conservative media was just a bunch of lunatics, who were determined to co-opt Christianity, hunt minorities, and cater to the rich. However,. I had not bargained for the lopsided fearful reporting from the "Left" as well. Why were so many afraid of the Right Wing lunatics???? Why were we sold their LIES. Other than the BRAVE Nate Silver, who got excoriated for speaking the truth, most people in the media sold us TRASH under the guise of news. We were deluged with Karl Rove's made up dreams about a Romney win, and very few stuck to Romney's tax issues, his unsuitability for the office, and the assault of the Conservatives on our country. It was an election reporting RULED by misinformation-- predicated it appears on some misplaced hope of appearing fair.  Meanwhile, the Republicans bot away with MURDER, and the press allowed it all the time.

I watched this nonsense "Right to Work Fiasco" start in MI. I have not seen an article on the dangers this union crushing trend is creating for workers in general. The more the unions are castrated, the more the domino effect on private sector employees.  This is a big deal, and it has, just as the elections were, been covered in a listless and bland way with no forceful analysis of the political and other ramifications of this trend for the average American worker.

Altman's piece is informative , but with the  Right skewed coverage by the media of the Presidential elections,  I think the press owes us Strong TRUTHS, passion and emotion. 

This piece, in my opinion, just does not push the urgency required to stop the assault on unions and workers.

This crazy Lvyefyre makes comments a worse chore than cooking. :)     

RobertSnyder
RobertSnyder

Right to work means right to get the benefits of union negotiations without the annoying payment of dues to pay for the benefits. How about a trade here. Michigan can make the state a "right to pay taxes voluntary operation." Let the folks decide what they want to pay and pay nothing if so inclined.

ilikechips
ilikechips

Well, does any liberal here think the media would have treated it differently if it was a tea partier. No questions answered yet..just insults..par for the course here in the liberal swamp

ilikechips
ilikechips

just wanted to see if the liberal group think circle jerk was still going on here. Where is the outrage by everybody. Can you imagine the nonstop loop on CBS ABC, NBC and every other media outlet if a Tea Partier punched a MSNBC coorespondent in the face and and then tore down a tent by a liberal group..all on camera..It would be major news..but instead we have union thugs championed by the liberal media doing it so there is a media blackout of it all. Liberal media bias?? what liberal media bias??

JohnDavidDeatherage
JohnDavidDeatherage

Fellas, its been entertaining.  But I've got to sign off now. let me know when the protest march starts. I'll be there.

JohnDavidDeatherage
JohnDavidDeatherage

Michigan at one time was probably the most pro-union state in America.  What prompted the change?

fitty_three
fitty_three

@JohnDavidDeatherage 

So it seems we have you down to cynical belief-based nostrums, and insults.

What's wrong here?  Are we not "worshipping" you or your belief system correctly?  

Does this make us heathens?

reg
reg

@BenevolentLawyer  

 If you're no longer interested in the media, why are you writing a 500 word post, or should I say essay? Typical lawyer off gassing.

kbanginmotown
kbanginmotown

OK, Really guys? I forget to delete a Live-Freakin'-Fyre test post and get 2 likes?!? ;)

I guess...I guess you like me! You really LIKE ME!

DonQuixotic
DonQuixotic

@ilikechips 

I've seen Tea Party members get into fights and harass people in DC.  Your point?

fitty_three
fitty_three

@ilikechips  

One thing I'll give JD is that he didn't go troll like you, "chips".

He almost did, there at the end...

MrObvious
MrObvious

@ilikechips 

Funny how you're the second rightie who makes the statement 'imagine if a tea partier punched a reporter'

Must be the same Kool Aid you guys drink.

Logic. Don't murder it please.

DonQuixotic
DonQuixotic

@JohnDavidDeatherage 

I'm reminded of the last time you got smacked around here by people wiser than you (specifically Paul Dirks).  Funny how it's ending the same way.

Diecash1
Diecash1

@JohnDavidDeatherage What prompted the change was a pile of teatards in the legislature and a lot of outside money and influence.  The legislation was essentially written by ALEC.  Pure garbage.  The right-wingers pushed it through now as they realized that they might not have the votes when the new members are seated in January.  Pathetic.

MrObvious
MrObvious

@JohnDavidDeatherage 

Follow the political trail and who funded the change in state and local politics.

That's who.

Then listen to the barrage of mis-information from sources like Fox what Right to work means.

Simply put it's not based on a economic reality since unemployment is lower in Michigan then the national average and companies are booming over there.

DonQuixotic
DonQuixotic

@JohnDavidDeatherage 

The GOP's assault on the auto industry and unions as a whole.  Their movement against them has been gaining ground due to a constant stream of misinformation spread about how all unions and union members are bad guys.

fitty_three
fitty_three

pagans and zuls?

Well I never...

[nose in air]

BenevolentLawyer
BenevolentLawyer

@reg  I have LITTLE interest in the media. Read my comment, and carefully analyze it before your rush to comment. How dull. 

fitty_three
fitty_three

@kbanginmotown  

You made more sense than ilikechips or JD and have a better personality than JD.

I don't mention ilikechips because he doesn't have a personality.

outsider
outsider

Same guy

@MrObvious @ilikechips

DonQuixotic
DonQuixotic

@MrObvious @JohnDavidDeatherage 

Since this guy seems to value experience as a point of being right, are you and I (with the most likes and most posts) the two most brilliant people on Swampland; masters of political discourse and discussions?

fitty_three
fitty_three

You know that you've pretty much lost this debate, don't you?

There's nothing like seeing the white flag of insult being waved when all else has failed.

fitty_three
fitty_three

You're both racists against us heathens, you zoo aminals!

fitty_three
fitty_three

@JohnDavidDeatherage

I'm glad you did.  Expansion of vocabulary is always helpful.

At least now you understand my criticism.  Beliefs are beliefs, but you have yet to show that you are "correct" in any way whatsoever.

reg
reg

@BenevolentLawyer @reg Yawn. I bet you're a peach at a dinner party. I am sure people flee as they here you dither on. You like to hear yourself speak obviously.

MrObvious
MrObvious

@53_3 @JohnDavidDeatherage 

Really - if some upper crust from the Feds believe in Ayn Rand doesn't that change everything else you believe in or alter the historical events that shows Ayn Rand Objectivism wrong?

Or was it the 'uppity' remark about how I don't happen to know someone that worship upon Ayn Rands vapid corpse?

Man - if life and the way we see things was so easy. I guess if I really cared I'd google it.

fitty_three
fitty_three

@JohnDavidDeatherage

Still trying to figure out how many points you're getting mentally for this.

Do you realize that what we are saying is that it's not really necessary for us to know who this is to come to viable conclusions about your belief system?

There's always history, you know, and what you've told us so far.

MrObvious
MrObvious

@JohnDavidDeatherage @MrObvious @53_3 

There’s an age when boys read one of two books. Either they read Ayn Rand or they read Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. One of these books leaves you with no grasp on reality and a deeply warped sense of fantasy in place of real life. The other one is about hobbits and orcs.

fitty_three
fitty_three

@JohnDavidDeatherage

Are you scoring points this way?  The fact remains that whoever it is acted within the framework of the FRS.

What they write after that is his or her business.

After all, I don't believe everything Dr. Phil says, either!

fitty_three
fitty_three

I never liked Ayn and I don't believe in her philosophies.

fitty_three
fitty_three

@JohnDavidDeatherage

I don't need to.  I'll welcome the knowledge.

Do you know why I don't really need to?

Because the individual in question worked within the framework of the FRS.

Now, does that make any sense?  I hope so.  But please, please let me know who this is.

JohnDavidDeatherage
JohnDavidDeatherage

@53_3 Other than a past President of the Federal Reserve System....

really, you guys make this too easy....

fitty_three
fitty_three

Ayn is just one of many Free Marketeers.

It's only theory that has never had any support in recent or past history.

None, whatsoever.

fitty_three
fitty_three

@JohnDavidDeatherage

JD, there's economics and there's economics.  Ayn is just a person.

I, on the other hand, like history for a reason...