Labor strikes back?

Trying an end-run on emergency managers and right-to-work laws

Mar 14, 2012 at 12:00 am

I know the one thing we did right

Was the day we started to fight

Keep your eyes on the prize

Hold on.

—Civil rights movement song


For more than a year, unions and working people have taken a pounding, ever since Rick Snyder became governor and Republican right-wing ideologues captured the Legislature.

A tough new emergency manager law sailed with ease though the Legislature; among other things, it gives such managers the power to tear up contracts negotiated in good faith, if they feel like it.

The lawmakers put strict limits on how much local governments could offer their workers in terms of health benefits, proving once again the ancient proverb that Republicans are in favor of local control ... except when they aren't. 

They went after teachers' unions, with the clear intent of making it harder for them to represent their members by forbidding payroll deduction of dues. They also seemed bizarrely obsessed with preventing a handful of graduate research assistants at the University of Michigan from forming a union.

Even that wasn't enough, however. Increasingly, legislative Republicans have been talking about passing what they call right-to-work legislation, which really has nothing to do with workers' rights and everything to do with destroying private sector unions.

They want to outlaw the "union shop," the mechanism that for decades has given labor the power to stand up to the powerful corporations by ensuring that workers can vote to make sure the entire bargaining unit is represented by the union of their choice.

Snyder, who is more intelligent and less blindly ideological than most legislative Republicans, opposed this. He told his fellow partisans that this wasn't necessary, and urged them to notice how going too far had actually backfired in Wisconsin and Ohio.

But they didn't care. The goal of these Tea Party lunatics is smashing the unions, and punishing anyone who works for the public sector by cutting their pay and benefits. They don't have much use for workers in the private sector either, though they don't say that.

Throughout all this, the Democratic Party remained mostly disgracefully silent. True, they have little or no power these days, especially in the state Senate. True, they whined and sniveled about how awful Snyder's programs were. 

But they did nothing, other than cast meaningless votes against whatever programs the right wing was shoving through. Did Democrats offer any kind of counterproposals instead?

Did they leap to defend the workers? Did the Democratic minority leaders stand up and say "we propose that instead of taxing pensions, cutting aid to education, and throwing poor kids off cash assistance we do something else?"

Such as, raise income taxes on those who can afford them?

Did they have the guts to do that? Not on your life. But now, somebody finally has: the unions. To my stunned surprise, the unions got together and came up with a proposal that could be a game-changer and merits everyone's support.

Last week, a union-friendly group called We Are the People held a press conference to announce a drive for a state constitutional amendment that would protect collective bargaining.

People had expected some effort made to ward off "right-to-work." But this goes far beyond that. Collective bargaining rights are what created the middle class in this country and made America great. This amendment would enshrine them in the state Constitution for both private sector and public sector workers alike.

The proposed amendment says: "The Legislature's exercise of its power to enact laws relative to the hours and conditions of employment shall not abridge, impair, or limit the right to collectively bargain for wages, hours and other terms of employment."

If this passes, nobody could outlaw collective bargaining or throw out contracts collectively arrived at. No matter what. 

Unlike the silly "recall Snyder" proposal, which was doomed to failure from the start, this is likely to get the 322,609 valid signatures needed to get on the ballot, since most Michigan labor unions have vowed to help collect them.

Now this is something worth fighting for. Should this get on the ballot and be approved by a majority of the citizens voting in November, it would apparently nullify several major pieces of Snyder-era legislation. The sweeping powers emergency managers now have to ignore union contracts would end. The law outlawing unions for university graduate students would be null and void. Laws aimed at weakening teacher unions would likely be invalid as well. 

Zack Pohl, the spokesman for We the People, the umbrella labor group leading the charge, said the unions were willing to spend what it needed to get the amendment on the ballot and then passed, though he wouldn't say how much. 

He did say, "We fully expect we'll have lots of enemies," who will spend heavily to try to get the public to defeat the amendment.

That they will have, and this could be the showdown that will determine whether workers will have any rights in our brave new world. If you care at all, this is the way to get involved.


Matty's darkest hour: Two months ago, the world sat up and took notice when Wayne County Circuit Judge Prentis Edwards threw Manuel Moroun, the 84-year-old owner of the Ambassador Bridge, in jail for failing to comply with court orders and demolish the illegal construction his company built as part of the Gateway project.

The bridge company and the state made a deal in 2004 to do certain things to improve access to the bridge, but Moroun flagrantly violated the agreement in a way designed to maximize his own profits. Why this aged billionaire needed to gouge people more isn't clear, but I am not an expert on psychological entomology. 

He and the guy who runs the company for him, Dan Stamper, were jailed after two years of blatantly ignoring the judge. Higher courts let Matty out the next day. But they made it clear he had better follow court orders. Cowed, he said he would. But weeks later, state Rep. Rashida Tlaib, who represents the area in question, was saying that nothing substantial had been done. Last week the judge agreed.

Proving he wants results, not revenge, Edwards said he wasn't interested any longer in jailing Matty, but instead took the project away from him. He ordered the Michigan Department of Transportation to get it done, and ordered the bridge company to make $16 million available to the state to do it.

The day before, even the Republicans on the Michigan Supreme Court told Matty to get lost when he came whining to them and asking them to do something to save him from justice.

All this should make it abundantly clear to any thinking person what kind of creature we are dealing with here. That is, with the exception of the many legislators Moroun has effectively bought off with campaign "donations." 

This would be an ideal time for the governor to do the right thing and announce plans to form an authority to build the badly needed new bridge across the Detroit River. Moroun will sue, or course, since that seems to be the only thing that gives his wretched life meaning, as his biological clock ticks down.

But he has no credibility left. The bridge project would create 10,000 jobs, at least for a few years. It seems only fair that as part of our recovery, Matty does his part by employing a few more lawyers.