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.

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