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Labor loses ground in former stronghold

1:30 PM, Dec 9, 2012   |    comments
Demonstrators protest right-to-work legislation in the outside the George W. Romney State Office building, where Gov. Snyder's office is located, in Lansing, Mich., Friday, Dec. 7, 2012. Michigan could become the 24th state with a right-to-work law this week. (Photo: Paul Sancya, AP)
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Todd Spangler and Brent Snavely, Detroit Free Press
DETROIT -- Labor used to rule the roost in the industrial Midwest. Its support was sought by nearly everyone, from politicians to philanthropic groups.

But, if nothing else, Gov. Rick Snyder's stated intention to sign a right-to-work rule for Michigan shows that organized labor's star has lost some of its luster in a region - and in a state - that helped to make it a giant of industry and influence.

Until a couple of years ago, the thought of such a law in Michigan - which makes it illegal to require employees to financially support unions as a condition of employment - was unthinkable. The unions, including the UAW, were just too strong.

Gov. John Engler, Snyder's most recent Republican predecessor, served three terms in office, from 1991-2003 - and never even tried it.

But the situation has changed in recent years, as governors and legislators have started to roll back labor rights in Wisconsin, Ohio and Indiana. Right-to-work rules get at the heart of organized labor, its funding source, which allows it to wield such a big stick.

"I think that unions are embattled institutions," said Roland Zullo of the University of Michigan's Institute for Research on Labor, Employment and the Economy. "In Michigan, and the Midwest in general over the past decade, we have seen a huge decline in the number of manufacturing jobs. A lot of those were good union jobs."

To be sure, organized labor remains a potent force in politics and the American economy, in particular as the recession recedes and manufacturing stages a return in the wake of several years of wage and job cuts.

The number of union-related work stoppages involving more than 1,000 workers, which reached an all-time low of just five in 2009, rose to 13 as of October.

Also, some political and labor experts say that President Obama's November victory, regardless of labor's exact electoral role, shows unions still have clout.

It's not difficult to trace the recent attempts to limit union power in what used to be organized labor's safest strongholds to its declining membership. In the 1950s, one out of every three nonagricultural workers nationwide was said to be a union member. In 1985, 21% of employees were represented by a union. By 2011, that was down to 13%.

Those declines have been especially felt in Rust Belt states such as Michigan, where the number of workers represented by a union fell from 27% in 1990 to 18% in 2011.

But the UAW and other unions are still able to make their presence felt, sometimes powerfully.

Labor, according to the Center for Responsive Politics in Washington, was among the top 10 interest groups in federal campaign contributions in 2011-12, giving $143 million in the most recent count. The National Education Association and the UAW each gave more than $12 million to Obama, who has spent a couple of Labor Day celebrations in southeast Michigan.

At the same time, however, labor has found it's no longer able to count on monolithic Democratic support. In Wisconsin this year, a recall election for Republican Gov. Scott Walker, who backed legislation that stripped most public employees of their collective-bargaining rights, failed. And in Michigan this fall, the UAW-backed Prop 2, which would have enshrined collective-bargaining rights in the state constitution, failed by a margin of 57%-43%, even as Obama cruised to a 54%-45% victory over Republican challenger Mitt Romney.

It clearly indicated what polls done for the Detroit Free Press showed: A sizable number of Democrats - nearly a quarter, in one poll - and a plurality of independents were against Proposal 2, despite supporting the Democratic president. About a third of respondents who were either union members themselves or lived in a union household also were against the proposition.

That's proof that unions no longer have as much clout and sway in the Democratic Party as they once did, said Nelson Lichtenstein, professor of history and labor at the University of California, Santa Barbara.

"I wouldn't frame it as saying there is a conflict between labor and the Obama liberals," said Lichtenstein, author of "Walter Reuther: The Most Dangerous Man in Detroit." "It's just that the alignment has not been as clear or linked as it was in the heyday of the UAW."

Right-to-work spreads

There's no dearth of rationales for why union rights would be under attack in the industrial Midwest. In recent years, Republicans have wrested control from Democrats in state governments. And the recession also has heightened a sense of economic competition between the states, at the same time appropriators are calling for cutbacks for unionized government employees.

Some argue that in states such as Michigan, union demands have chased business and economic growth out. Labor, and many Democrats, have long argued that corporate America is undermining the middle class by chasing the lowest wages and cheapest benefits they can provide - and those usually aren't union.

Right-to-work, long a mainstay in the South and the Southwest, has been pitched as a way to attract jobs, though a quick scan at federal unemployment statistics for October shows that the 23 states with right-to-work laws on the books were near the bottom and top, meaning the rule is no guarantee of growth.

"There are views among state legislators that say we're competing against a lot of states in the South and Southwest, and they're growing a lot faster," said Daniel DiSalvo, a labor expert and political science professor at the City College of New York. "I think there's a good bit of economic calculation here."

Indiana became state No. 23 among right-to-work states - and the first in the upper Midwest - this year. Snyder referenced the neighboring Hoosier State, and pointed to economic growth and competition there, as one of the reasons he decided to support right-to-work in Michigan.

Rick Berman, president of management consulting firm Berman and Co., said that outside of union members, most people think they should have the right to decide whether to belong to a union and that it shouldn't be a requirement of their employment.

"I think the politicians are on the side of the public," Berman said. "I don't think the unions represent the majority opinion."

Payback for unions

Politically, right-to-work rules are seen as a way to cut into organized labor's ability to raise resources from its potential members, further weakening its power. And that, in turn, could have enormous ramifications at a time when corporations can spend unlimited amounts supporting candidates and issues thanks to the controversial Citizens United ruling by the Supreme Court in 2010.

Obama has reiterated his opposition to right-to-work rules.

Oakland County Executive L. Brooks Patterson, a Republican, said that unlike the situation in other states, Michigan's drive for right-to-work seems motivated by the union's push for Proposal 2, which he called "a greedy move."

"I don't know where any union has gone that far in any state," he said.

The UAW, already out organizing support for Obama's re-election, may have seen an opportunity to protect itself and taken it, despite suggestions from Snyder that it should drop the referendum, political experts said.

It may have been an overreach, said Democratic political consultant Joe DiSano in Lansing. But if it was, so is the reaction now in Lansing, he said. Voters might not have been ready to give collective bargaining constitutional protection, but that doesn't mean they want a governor rolling back existing union rights, he said.

The unions would likely mount a referendum to overturn right-to-work, DiSano said. The GOP-controlled Legislature has attached an appropriation to the bills pending in Lansing, protecting them from having voters repeal them at the ballot box.

And where DiSano said he had expected Snyder to skate to re-election previously, this could attract a stronger and more emboldened Democratic opponent.

Certainly, no one should count out the UAW, Teamsters, AFL-CIO and other unions, despite the defeat of Proposal 2. They can still motivate and organize thousands of members and retirees across the state, arguing for no more than not upsetting the status quo.

"It says to me, first of all, that elections have consequences," UAW President Bob King said. "The Republicans have a supermajority in the (state) Senate and a strong majority in the House, and they are taking advantage of it by pushing a very partisan agenda, which I don't think is good for Michigan.

"It says that we in labor have to do a much better job of engaging our membership and their families and their friends, because I think 90% of the people disagree with the economics of the Republican economic agenda."

Detroit Free Press

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