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In Midwest Union Fights, Michigan Shows 2010 Election Still Trumps 2012

Silent protesters Wednesday in Lansing, Mich., wear tape with messages that signify wages they say they could lose because of the state's new right-to-work law.
Paul Sancya
Silent protesters Wednesday in Lansing, Mich., wear tape with messages that signify wages they say they could lose because of the state's new right-to-work law.

No one can argue the setback to organized labor served up by Michigan's new law, which bars unions from requiring workers to pay dues even if they don't join their workplace bargaining unit.

Tuesday's passage of "right to work" legislation in a state dominated by the auto industry and the historically powerful United Auto Workers was a surprising "smack in the face" to unions, says labor expert Lee Adler, especially given President Obama's nearly 10-point win in the state last month.

The action by the GOP-controlled Legislature in a post-election lame-duck session is the surest sign yet, Adler says, of how losses suffered by more union-friendly Democrats two years ago in key statehouse races continue to reverberate.

"The November election did not solve the losses suffered in 2010," says Adler, of Cornell University's School of Industrial and Labor Relations and the author of books on organized labor's history and future.

Those losses, he says, mean that the GOP still has the ability in key states — especially above the Mason-Dixon Line — to hobble unions.

The Future Of Unions?

We turned to Adler for some perspective on where unions go now, given the political realities in Michigan — which on Tuesday became the 24th state to enact right-to-work rules — and where less than 20 percent of the workforce now belongs to unions.

Some quick background: After Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder, a Republican elected in 2010, signed the bill into law Tuesday, he characterized it not as anti-union but "about more and better jobs for Michiganders."

The measure will go into effect 90 days after the state ends its current legislative session. Prohibition of mandatory union dues will be phased in as union contracts expire and new deals are struck.

Snyder, who insisted that he believes in collective bargaining, arguing that the new law will simply force unions to present a stronger case to attract and keep dues-paying members, says he foresees challenges to the law. "I would expect litigation," he told reporters.

In the meantime, Adler has some advice — and caution — for future union efforts.

Union responses need to be confrontational to be effective, he says, but that doesn't mean staging daily protests at the statehouse like those organized by the unions in Wisconsin after GOP Gov. Scott Walker pushed through legislation early in 2011 that largely stripped that state's public unions of collective bargaining rights.

"They can do the traditional thing, and have public protests about it," Adler says, "but that doesn't mean anything, as we saw in Wisconsin."

"They have to think of some more creative approaches, to explain why it matters to people beyond those who are in trade unions," he said. "This is a major frontal attack on the labor unions in Michigan, and there has to be a continuing vigilance, pressure, and a strategy of constructive obstruction."

Comparing Wisconsin, Ohio And Michigan

The most effective strategy for unions, he argues? "Make the case along class lines," he says, though without setting up the Koch brothers, for example, as specific target.

The wealthy Kochs have helped bankroll right-to-work efforts nationally, as well as other anti-union measures in Wisconsin and beyond.

"It's more important to develop a strategy where unions can talk to other working people who aren't in unions — women, minorities, immigrants — and show that they're in this together," he said. "Unions' success will come from that, and not from a boogeyman."

The examples of Wisconsin, where efforts to recall Walker failed in June, and of Ohio, where voters statewide in 2011 turned back a GOP effort to limit public union collective bargaining, may provide little in the way of a road map.

Union efforts in Wisconsin were unsuccessful. And, unlike in Ohio, voters in Michigan will not get to weigh in on the right-to-work legislation because it is attached to a spending bill.

"I think the electorate in Wisconsin just got tired of undoing elections," Adler says, referring to the doctrine of permanent revolution and its wearying effect. "In Ohio, they targeted a law, and organized around that law, which was much more effective."

Big Loss For The Democratic Party

A number of factors diminish the meaning of the Wisconsin and Ohio experiences, in the context of Michigan, he says.

What happened in Michigan, given the movement of the electorate, is a "recognizable political contradiction," Adler says.

Contradiction or not, Michigan this week provided more shock treatment for organized labor and, by extension, the Democratic Party.

Some perspective: The United Auto Workers, described by the Center for Responsive Politics as "a strong financial supporter of Democrats," in the 2012 election cycle contributed more than $11 million to political action committees, parties, outside spending groups and candidates. That included more than $138,000 directly to Obama's campaign.

The UAW ranks 14th out of 20,484 campaign contributors traced by the center, qualifying it for "heavy hitter" status.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Liz Halloran joined NPR in December 2008 as Washington correspondent for Digital News, taking her print journalism career into the online news world.