Republicans celebrate 'Waterloo' of trade unions
Michigan’s Republican-dominated legislature and Republican governor have dealt a severe blow to the US trade union movement and the Democratic party, which it helps to finance, five weeks after Barack Obama won the state in the presidential election.
Michigan became the 24th state to pass a “right to work” law, in the form of two Bills banning the compulsory payment of union dues in the public and private sector. The legislation is considered particularly symbolic in Michigan, the birthplace of the United Auto Workers.
The UAW’s membership once surpassed one million nationwide; it is now approximately 380,000. Forty per cent of Michiganders belonged to trade unions in the 1960s; that figure has fallen to 17.5 per cent.
Democrats accused Republicans of passing the Bills by stealth. They were introduced last Thursday, debated for three hours on Tuesday, voted on by both chambers and signed into law by governor Rick Snyder behind closed doors on Tuesday evening. “There were a number of people out protesting,” Mr Snyder said. “So I don’t see the need to have a public signing ceremony to overemphasise that.”
More than 10,000 demonstrators had surrounded the state capitol building in Lansing in freezing temperatures. They inflated giant balloons representing rats and bearing the names of the governor and Republican leaders.
Supporters and opponents of the Bills tore down each other’s tents. State troopers fired pepper spray and at least three people were arrested.
A union activist predicted civil war. “There will be blood,” Democratic representative Douglass Geiss said during the debate. Lisa Posthumus Lyons, a Republican representative, told the chamber it was “witnessing history in the making”, adding that “this is the day that Michigan freed its workers”.
Proponents of “right to work” laws claim they encourage investment and create jobs. Opponents say they drive down wages for union and non-union workers alike, deprive the unions of funds they need to survive and are calculated to weaken the Democratic party.
Non-farm workers in “right to work” states earn an average $57,732 annually, compared to $65,567 in states where unions are allowed to collect dues from all employees in companies where they engage in collective bargaining, according to a study by the University of Notre Dame.
Opponents of “right to work” say the laws enable non-union members to become “free-riders”, benefiting from the wages and conditions negotiated by unions without contributing to them.
Mr Snyder is a bland businessman who never held public office before he was elected in 2010. His campaign slogan, “One Tough Nerd”, appeared as “One Term Nerd” on placards in Tuesday’s demonstrations. Mr Snyder portrayed himself as a moderate and until last week avoided union issues, which he called “divisive”. He said he was provoked by a union drive to enshrine collective bargaining rights in Michigan’s state constitution. Unions spent more than $22 million on that campaign, but the initiative failed on November 6th.
Mr Snyder has been described as a puppet of Dick DeVos, the heir to the Amway cleaning products fortune and a staunch proponent of “right to work” laws. Greg McNeilly, who heads Michigan Freedom Fund, a group backed by Mr DeVos, told the Washington Post that Tuesday’s vote was the “Waterloo” of organised labour. “To see the birthplace of forced unionisation do a turnabout is a very monumental achievement, and it is historic,” Mr McNeilly said.
Learned from mistakes
Michigan Republicans learned from the mistakes of anti-union leaders in other rust belt states. Voters in Ohio last year repealed a ban on collective bargaining which had been pushed through by Ohio governor John Kasich. Mr Kasich had erred by including police and firefighters’ unions in the law.
Wisconsin governor Scott Walker, who earlier this year survived a recall vote, exempted both from his ban on collective bargaining. Mr Snyder did so too and stressed that his law was about “freedom in the workplace” and was in no way an attempt to limit collective bargaining.
Opponents are considering legal challenges, and have vowed to vote the Republican-led legislature and Mr Snyder out of office in 2014.
But unions are finding it difficult to convince Americans they are the antidote to stagnant wages and frozen pensions. A poll showed that 51 per cent of Michigan’s population supported “right to work” legislation. Only 41 per cent opposed it.