How the Capitol exploded 

Last week, Lansing's cold war got hot

click to enlarge 1414985.jpg

Editor's Note: This is an updated version of the story that appears in this week's print edition of the Metro Times.


Michigan is on the verge of doing something that would have been absolutely unthinkable even a few years ago.

Unless there is a dramatic turnaround, this state — a place that helped give birth to the modern labor movement, a cornerstone in the building of the American middle class — is very likely to become the 24th state to enact some form of so-called "right to work" law that will put already embattled unions in an even more precarious position.

What happened?

Some, on both the left and the right, say that the unions themselves are at least partly to blame. These observers point to what they describe as a monumental tactical error made by big labor when it poured millions of dollars into ballot measures that went before voters in November, effectively posing a direct challenge to the policies of Gov. Rick Snyder. 

In doing so, labor both exposed some of its own weakness and aroused the ire of a governor who had professed to be moderate, spurring him to side with the reactionary forces in his Republican Party. 

The characterization of recent events is a matter of some dispute.

What can't be disputed, however, is that conservative forces in Michigan have been pursuing the goal of "right to work" for decades. 

Until now, that goal has been unattainable. But in recent days we've witnessed a convergence of factors that amounted to a sort of perfect political storm. 

Previously, Gov. Snyder was on record as saying that "right to work" wasn't part of his "agenda" because it is such a divisive issue. Instead of creating massive conflict over RTW, he said he preferred to pursue other policies to help Michigan's economy recover.

Say what you want about the governor, but there's no denying that he was absolutely correct about RTW being divisive. More than 10,000 union members and their supporters showed up at the Capitol on Tuesday in a last-ditch effort to prevent final legislative approval of two RTW bills — one for the private sector and one for public employees (with an expected "carve out" for police officers and firefighters). The massive demonstration failed to stop the legislation from being rammed through. The two bills now only need the governor's signature to become law.

Last week, state police attempted to keep protesters out of the Capitol as the RTW bills were being rushed through both houses. Two injunctions had to be issued in order to open the way for the public, who found that GOP staff members had occupied seats.

It was an ugly and disgraceful scene unworthy of a democracy.

Facing facts

Let's get one thing straight: There is something absolutely Orwellian about calling the bills pushed through the Legislature "right to work" laws.

"To begin, the term 'right to work' ... is a misnomer," writes Roland Zullo, a research scientist at the University of Michigan's Institute for Labor and Industrial Relations. 

In a paper titled "What 'Right to Work' Would Mean for Michigan," Zullo goes on to explain: "RTW has nothing to do with the right of a person to seek and accept gainful employment."

Instead, it has to do with the ability of labor unions to negotiate what are called "security agreements" with employers.

Kenneth G. Dau-Schmidt, a professor of labor and employment law at Indiana University's Maurer School of Law, emailed the Metro Times a detailed opinion piece he previously wrote explaining exactly what it is these agreements entail and why they are important:

"These agreements require that, as a condition of employment, all employees in the bargaining unit either join a union and pay full dues, or at a minimum pay the union a smaller 'agency fee' equal to the cost of representing the employee. The employee doesn't have to join the union, or even pay full dues; he or she just has to compensate the union for the union's cost in representing the employee."

That fact is often lost in the flood of false claims made by proponents of RTW. An op-ed piece penned by state Rep. Mike Shirkey (R-Clark Lake) is a perfect example.

"Michigan is about to liberate hard working Michigan citizens from the
unnatural burden of forced union membership."

The truth of the matter is, no such liberation is necessary. As Dau-Schmidt noted, "Under federal law, unions are required to represent all of the employees in their bargaining unit, whether the employee is a union member or not."

"Federal law," he added, "also ensures that no one can be required to join a union." (The emphasis is his.)

What RTW laws really do is relieve employees of the obligation to compensate unions for bargaining on their behalf, and for representing their interests if there is a cause for filing a grievance.

That is why critics of RTW sometimes derisively refer to it as the "right to be a freeloader" law.

"What other business is there where goods or services are provided, but the government mandates that the decision to pay is optional?" asks Chris Michalakis, Metro Detroit AFL-CIO president.

It is a rhetorical question.

For the free-marketeers at places like the Mackinac Center for Public Policy — a Michigan nonprofit "think tank" that promotes conservative fiscal policies and is one of the state's leading proponents of RTW — there is a decided philosophical component to the debate. Their thinking, which has libertarian roots, is that people should be free to not support a union in any way if that's their preference.

"One of the classic arguments you hear unions say is that under federal law employees don't have to pay union dues," says Jack Spencer, a former reporter who now writes for Michigan Capitol Confidential, the Mackinac Center's news and information service.

However, even if they don't want to join the union, they do have to pay fees to cover the union's cost of negotiating contracts and providing other services.

"Those fees," Spencer says, "are the unions' bread and butter." 

With RTW, workers at union shops are no longer compelled to contribute at all. Take away the forced payments, Spencer says, and the unions have a strong incentive to become what he describes as more "user-friendly."

"The idea is that unions will have to work a lot harder" because employees won't have to pay the unions anything unless the employees do so of their "own free choice."

"It makes unions more responsible," Spencer contends. "They have to persuade you that there is good reason to be contributing to them."

Given that members of the fiercely anti-union DeVos family (co-founders of Amway) provided about $200,000 in funding to the Mackinac Center from 2002 to 2009 (according to a report compiled by the Michigan Education Association) it is easy to see why many in the labor movement believe the think tank is really more concerned about looking out for corporate interests than it is in ensuring workers are well-represented at the bargaining table.

"The real goal of RTW," contends union leader Michalakis, "is to weaken leverage for workers and strengthen it for management."

Proponents of RTW, though — when not claiming it is intended to free beleaguered workers from nonexistent requirements that they belong to a union, or that they are interested in helping prompt unions to be more responsive to the needs of their members — insist that RTW laws are needed to promote economic prosperity.

Again, the claims are at best dubious.


What economic benefit?

Go searching on the Web for information about the economic impact of RTW laws and you will quickly begin to experience a sort of mental whiplash.

Read one study and your mind gets jerked to the right. Read another and it gets yanked to the left. Back and forth.

Look to determine whether RTW laws are an economic boon or bane and it quickly becomes apparent that much of the so-called "research" that's been produced is tailored to conform to the political leanings and philosophies of those doing the research, or the financial interests of those who are paying for it.

That's not just our opinion.

Hari Singh, an economics professor at Grand Valley State University's Seidman College of Business, reached a similar conclusion after evaluating the existing literature in a 2010 paper titled "Right to Work and Economic Impact: What It Means For Michigan".

In trying to answer the question of how much RTW laws affected the siting of new auto manufacturing plants, Singh noted:

"As always in economics, the question is simple but the answer is quite complicated. Most of the complications arise from two major factors: First, to whom do you ask the question? A think tank which is more towards the right (of the economics ideological spectrum) will have very different answers compared to an official of the UAW. Generally the more reasonable answer is probably somewhere in the middle, but one can swing more toward the right or left of this spectrum depending upon one's existing belief and political ideology. As is most often the case, where you stand (and what you say) depends upon where you sit. Due to these differences, when arguments and empirical results are presented by different persons or organizations, it is important to identify their ideological leanings."

Moreover, reaching a valid conclusion is complicated by the fact the RTW laws by themselves determine nothing. 

"There are many things that can cause differences in employment and wages across states and regions," writes Singh. "What we can attribute solely to RTW really depends upon how well we control for all these other confounding factors. Generally, descriptive comparisons based on raw numbers don't indicate much because there are many factors influencing these variables."

Confounding the situation is the fact that those other variables can play a much more significant role in determining where businesses locate than whether or not a state has an RTW law in place.

"When making location decisions, businesses rate factors such as the quality of the regional workforce, the regulatory environment, and tax incentives before ever considering RTW laws," argues U-M's Roland Zullo.

One thing that's indisputable, though, argues Zullo, is the benefit unions bring to individual workers.

"Depending on the occupation, unionized workers earn wages that are 10 to 40 percent higher than their nonunion counterparts," he writes. "The positive differential for other forms of compensation, such as health care insurance and pensions, is even greater. 

"Perhaps more important than economics, however, are matters involving justice. Nearly all union contracts feature an informal form of due process: a grievance procedure that ends in final binding arbitration through which unions resolve disputes over the contract and employer discipline. As such, in most union settings, an employer must show proof that a worker committed a wrongdoing in order to discharge them. By contrast, in a nonunion setting workers are 'at-will' and can be discharged for any reason (or none at all) that is not proscribed by federal law."

David Schultz — who teaches classes on privatization and public, private and nonprofit partnerships at the Hamline University School of Business in St. Paul, Minn. — wrote about the issue earlier this year. 

Among other things he found that:

"Legislative debates on the issue are generally badly informed or woefully devoid of fact-based impartial evidence. Often studies are cited by organizations with clear political agenda. Groups such as the Cato Institute, the Mackinac Center, and the Chamber of Commerce argue that RTW laws produce lower unemployment rates for states. Conversely, the generally liberal Economic Policy Institute finds the opposite, and also asserts that RTW adversely impacts unionization and family incomes."

Shultz then went on to explore what he described as "more nuanced and independent research."

Such research in Oklahoma — which became an RTW state in 2001 — found "no evidence that RTW laws increased employment" there, but that wages did fall as a result. A study conducted by researchers at Hofstra University, that looked at the whole of the United States, "reached the same conclusion on both points."

Conversely, he reported, there was little evidence to support the claim that unions were badly damaged in states with RTW laws.

The bottom line that he landed on?

"RTW does not produce the economic benefits that its advocates claim, and instead the real justification has to rest upon its political aims." 

It is no secret that in Michigan and elsewhere, organized labor focuses its political largesse on Democrats. Given that, the GOP only stands to benefit if union funds are depleted by RTW laws.


Political prism

Here's where the nitty really meets the gritty in the rough and bumble of Michigan's political maneuverings.

It begins in 2011, when a newly elected Gov. Snyder springs what will become PA 4 — the controversial emergency manager law — on the state. 

Passed by the GOP-controlled Legislature, the law — expanding the authority of the previous emergency financial managers — contains much that is considered objectionable by liberals. Many liberals and progressives consider it a direct attack on democracy, providing state-appointed bureaucrats with what critics calls near-dictatorial control over financially troubled municipalities and school districts. The fact that they are only appointed to manage in places where people of color are in the majority stirs opposition from civil rights groups.

And the provision that allows these managers to void contracts with public-sector unions prompts labor to rise up in opposition.

A coalition, backed primarily by union money, sets in motion a measure to repeal the law by referendum. Also on the ballot are two other union-financed measures, which seek to amend the state constitution.

The most significant of those is Proposal 2, which sought to enshrine in the constitution the right of unions to collectively bargain. Along with attempting to derail the threat PA 4 posed to unions, the proposal is also described a pre-emptive attempt to fend off any possible right-to-work legislation — even though Snyder had gone on record as saying such legislation wasn't on his "agenda," at least in part because it would prove to be too "divisive."

The problem with that public claim, says the AFL-CIO's Michalakis, is that the state's labor leaders were never able to get a commitment from Snyder that he would oppose right-to-work legislation if it landed on his desk.

There's a big difference between something's not on your agenda and guaranteeing that you'll oppose it. And so labor felt compelled to try to protect its interests through ballot measures.

The effort to repeal the emergency manager law succeeded Nov. 6, throwing a massive wrench into the governor's attempts to keep Detroit from becoming insolvent and forcing bankruptcy — something that would damage the entire state's credit rating and threaten the economic recovery that's taken place since Snyder has been at the helm. 

Prop 2, on the other hand, went down in flames, losing 52 percent-48 percent. Proponents like Michalakis point to the fact that voters issued decisive "no's" on all the ballot measures, in part because of a well-funded effort to convince the public that proposals to amend the state constitution were a radical departure from the norm, rather than something the framers intended to be a relatively easy way for the public to check the power of the Legislature and executive branch. 

Pundits and campaign operatives from across the spectrum, however, are characterizing the effort as a massive miscalculation on the part of labor.

"If you read what all the pundits and analysts are saying, the opinion is that it was a mistake for the unions to push Proposal 2," says the Mackinac Center's Spencer. "This is a battle the governor didn't want, but the unions pushed the battle anyway. Instead of showing how much clout they have at the ballot box, they instead showed how vulnerable they are. "

Mark Grebner, whose Lansing firm Practical Political Consulting works mainly for Democrats, described the situation between Snyder and labor as a sort of "cold war" that ended when labor launched its ballot measures.

"When one side starts shooting, the other side doesn't feel constrained to try and keep the peace," Grebner observes.

He equates labor's efforts to the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor:

"It might have seemed like a good idea at the time, but it didn't turn out so good for them."

Another Democratic consultant, Eric Foster, says labor would have been wiser to put the tens of millions of dollars it dumped into the ballot measures and spent it instead on targeted efforts aimed at helping Democrats regain a majority in the state House. President Obama's re-election campaign, which resulted in him decisively winning on his way to re-election, could have provided a template to achieve that Democratic majority, Scott contends. Instead, labor relied on a sort of retail politics, with much money spent on media ads, and failed miserably.

For his part, however, Foster says he thinks the GOP would have pushed RTW in its lame duck session, but that Snyder would have been less likely to go along with it knowing that he would have to be working with a Democratic majority in the House come January.

Bill Ballenger, editor of the well-respected newsletter Inside Michigan Politics, summed up his view of the situation this way:

"There's an old saying that goes, 'If you strike at a king, you better kill him.'" Snyder urged the unions not to push [Proposal 2], but the unions didn't trust him on right to work, so they went ahead with it, "and they got clobbered. Elections have consequences."

So, apparently, do political retribution and unbridled partisanship — especially for someone like Snyder, a businessman who rode into office on the promise that he was a bridge-building moderate.

There are indications that Snyder is knuckling under to pressure from far-right billionaires who are virulently anti-union — namely the Koch brothers (whose father helped found the John Birch Society and whose fortune is built on a foundation of oil refineries, petrochemicals and timber, among other things) and Dick DeVos, a failed Republican gubernatorial candidate and son of Amway co-founder Richard DeVos. 

There might not be witnesses to say that these arch-conservative heavy hitters have been seen twisting the arms of the governor and some Republican legislators, but their fingerprints have reportedly surfaced.

As The Nation's John Nichols reported, "Americans for Prosperity — a group developed by ... billionaire campaign donors Charles and David Koch — was in the thick of things. AFP recruited conservatives to show up at the state Capitol in Lansing to counter union protests and prepared materials supporting the Michigan initiative, including a 15-page booklet titled 'Unions: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly: How forced unionization has harmed workers and Michigan.'"

In addition, reported Nichols, "Within minutes of the announcement by ... Snyder that Republicans would ram through the 'right to work' legislation, AFP was hailing the move in formal statements as 'the shot heard around the world for workplace freedom.'"

As for DeVos, Tim Skubik — the veteran politics columnist for reported last week that the former Amway CEO has "worked tirelessly behind Gov. Rick Snyder's back to push Right to Work" by "making phone calls to Republican lawmakers strongly advising them to get on with passing this."

When someone as wealthy and powerful as DeVos talks, politicians tend to listen closely.


Battle lines 

And that's the backstory for the havoc that broke out last week when the lame-duck Legislature rushed through two RTW bills without debate or public hearings. Labor turned out in force to protest — with more massive demonstrations planned for this week.

Democrats howled in protest, calling the ramrod approach a stain on democracy. Along with the speed with which they moved, and the complete lack of deliberation, the GOP leaders also attached appropriations to the bills, a parliamentary maneuver intended to protect the bills from being repealed by voters at the ballot box.

Members of Michigan's Democratic congressional delegation met with Snyder Monday morning, urging him to veto RTW if and when it hits his desk.

Following that meeting, Sen. Carl Levin issued a statement declaring, in part:

"The combined efforts of labor and management have been crucial to the rebound of our auto industry. That's why it is so disappointing that the governor and Republicans in the Michigan Legislature have chosen this moment to take this destructive step.

"I urge Governor Snyder to reconsider his support for this measure, which will splinter our state and do so much harm to its working families."

Snyder reportedly responded to those pleas with a Tweet:

"Freedom to work is all about creating more and better jobs in Michigan."

Leadership of the state's AFL-CIO issued this statement:

"If Governor Snyder continues to push this radical Tea Party legislation on behalf of millionaires it will tear apart the fabric of this state and result in years of contentious fights instead of being able to focus together on creating jobs and rebuilding the middle class."

And then President Obama, on a visit to Michigan, told a group of autoworkers what he thought about the issue.

"We should do everything we can to keep creating good middle-class jobs that help folks rebuild security for their families," Obama, according to published reports, said to Daimler workers. "What we shouldn't be doing is trying to take away your rights to bargain for better wages and working conditions."

"These so-called right-to-work laws, they don't have to do with economics, they have everything to do with politics," Obama continued. "What they're really talking about is giving you the right to work for less money."

The war is clearly on, and it's threatening to go nuclear.


Curt Guyette is Metro Times news editor. You can reach him at 313-202-8004 or

Latest in Local News

More by Curt Guyette

Best Things to Do In Detroit


Never miss a beat

Sign Up Now

Subscribe now to get the latest news delivered right to your inbox.

© 2016 Detroit Metro Times

Website powered by Foundation