Koch brothers, Tea Party cash drives Michigan right-to-work bill

Why did Gov. Rick Snyder buckle on an anti-union law? Just look at his big-money donors

Published December 11, 2012 1:37PM (EST)

Should we be surprised that Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder, who testified under oath that “right-to-work” wasn’t part of his agenda, is poised to sign just such a bill later today?

Snyder’s announcement last week that he’d support right-to-work has taken the sheen off his carefully cultivated image as a pragmatic alternative to hard-charging GOP counterparts in Ohio and Wisconsin. But it secures a dream of the anti-union Koch brothers and the American Legislative Exchange Council, whose associates are well-represented among Snyder’s donors, and whose economic agenda has been ascendant within the modern GOP.

“I think he was being a puppet for larger interests outside of the state,” United Auto Workers vice president Cindy Estrada told Salon Monday afternoon.

So-called right-to-work laws ban union contracts from requiring workers in a bargaining unit to pay for the costs of representation. (Contrary to much rhetoric – and some reporting – U.S. law already prevents workers from being required to join a union or pay dues, per se. The issue is whether non-members, whom the union is still legally required to negotiate for and represent at work, can be required to pay representation fees.) Right-to-work defunds and discourages unions, and makes it easier for employers to discriminate against pro-union workers. Passing right-to-work in Michigan, arguably the birthplace of the modern U.S. labor movement, would be ­– by all signs, will be – a major coup for the right.

It didn’t come out of nowhere. In a video shot by a Michigan Democratic tracker, former Michigan GOP chairman Ron Weiser is seen describing right-to-work plans that date back to 2007. A Michigan Democratic Party spokesperson told Salon that the video was recorded at a gathering of several Tea Party groups on Aug. 9, 2012 (the Michigan GOP and the governor’s office did not respond to requests for comment). In the video, Weiser describes hiring a political consultant and “working on that full-time” from October 2007 through the following March. Weiser, a former real-estate developer and U.S. ambassador who’s now the national RNC finance chair, describes a plan to gather signatures to put right-to-work on the ballot in 2008.

But Weiser tells the crowd that the strategy changed after a meeting in Washington with former Michigan Gov. John Engler (now the president of the Business Roundtable), former Oklahoma Gov. Frank Keating, billionaire donor Dick DeVos, and “some people from AFP,” the Koch-backed Tea Party group. At that meeting, Weiser says in the video, “what we determined was that to win that election, and to be sure we were gonna win it, we couldn’t have a governor that was against it. So we decided to wait. Wait until we had a governor. Now we have a legislature and we have a governor.” That governor is Rick Snyder.

Nowhere in the video clip does Weiser express concern about Snyder’s expressed antipathy toward right-to-work. But clearly, right-to-work supporters had no reason to worry.

Snyder’s previously avowed lack of interest in right-to-work was one of the building blocks in a media narrative casting the governor (slogan: “One Tough Nerd”) as a moderate problem-solver. The Detroit Free Press, which endorsed Snyder in 2010, noted in a Sunday editorial that it had frequently “trusted Snyder’s judgment” on economic policy, in part because “we believed him” when he promised to be “a pragmatist focused like a laser on initiatives that promised to raise standards of living for all Michiganders.” With a rushed-through right-to-work bill poised for Snyder’s signature, the editors wrote, “That trust has now been betrayed…”

It wasn’t just the Free Press. An August New York Times article offered a sympathetic portrait of the governor as a man trying to steer a middle course in a partisan era. But as some Democrats argued, that was an unjustifiably generous view of Snyder’s record, including on labor: While disclaiming interest in right-to-work, he signed a series of lower-profile anti-union bills into law. Those included denying collective bargaining rights to graduate student research assistants and domestic caregivers, and dramatically expanding the power of appointed emergency managers to shred the provisions of public workers’ union contracts.

But why did Snyder suddenly become the face of right-to-work? Republicans charge that unions forced the issue by backing a failed referendum effort to put collective bargaining rights into the Constitution, and a successful one reversing Snyder’s emergency manager move. Unions counter that the governor is doing the bidding of wealthy anti-union donors while subverting the will of voters, who just shrunk the Legislature’s GOP majority.

At a Monday press conference following a meeting with Snyder, congressional Democrats from Michigan criticized the governor for doing a sudden “180” on the issue. But in retrospect, said the UAW’s Estrada, “to have that big a change of heart so suddenly tells me that there must have been a piece of Gov. Snyder that was planning this all along.” She said she believes Snyder “was influenced by outsiders, like the Koch brothers and ALEC, and then other very powerful insiders like Dick Devos and the Mackinac Center.” In other words, the conservatives who helped get him elected.

While Snyder spent nearly $6 million of his own cash on his 2010 campaign, he had serious backup. As Mother Jones’ Andy Kroll reported last winter, the Republican Governors Association spun off a short-term PAC called RGA Michigan 2010, which spent over $8.3 million, “54 percent more than any other PAC had poured into any election in Michigan history” (some of that cash was allegedly funneled out of state, but over $5 million went to the state GOP). Among the group’s top donors: David Koch, Paul Singer and the Michigan Chamber of Commerce. $1,485,000 came from the DeVos clan, who co-founded the direct-marketing company Amway.

Dick Devos, a former Amway CEO, was the GOP’s self-funded (failed) gubernatorial nominee in 2006. During that campaign, he said he had no interest in right-to-work. But like Snyder, he’s had an apparent change of heart. The business group West Michigan Policy Forum, which Devos chairs, recently announced that it was prepared to get a right-to-work law on the ballot if legislators didn’t send one to the governor’s desk. A Mother Jones review of tax records revealed that the Dick and Betsy DeVos Foundation is also a donor to the Mackinac Center, a conservative think tank also backed by the Walton Family Foundation and the Charles G. Koch Foundation. As Kroll reported, Snyder’s “emergency manager” law adopted four out of four recommendations from Mackinac.

Paul Singer chairs the Manhattan Institute for Public Policy, a conservative think tank that has received funding from a Koch-backed foundation. Singer also directs Elliott Management, which played a lead role in buying up the debt of Delphi, the auto parts company that supplies to GM and Chrysler, and made a major profit off of the auto bailout. As Greg Palast reported in the Nation, “Of the 29 Delphi plants operating in the United States when the hedge funders began buying up control, only four remain, with not a single union production worker.”

David Koch was famously impersonated by blogger Ian Murphy in a prank phone call congratulating Scott Walker on his union-busting fortitude. The Kochs are major supporters of ALEC, and provided the funds to start AFP, a successor to the Koch-backed Citizens for a Sound Economy. As Lee Fang reported at the Nation, in 2008 through 2011, Mackinac and AFP-Michigan vastly outspent the union-backed group Progress Michigan.

Amway, Mackinac and the Manhattan Institute are all ALEC members. The right-to-work bills passed by the Michigan House and Senate have substantial overlap with the wording and content of ALEC’s model “Right to Work Act.”

In a Monday interview with Salon, AFP Michigan state director Scott Hagerstrom said he wasn’t familiar with who had donated to help Snyder, but touted AFP members’ phone calls and rallies on behalf of right-to-work. Hagerstrom called the bill “one of our top two policy priorities,” along with eliminating the state income tax. He said AFP’s Michigan chapter has pushed for right-to-work since its inception in 2007, and that passing the bill “will be a very big victory for personal freedom and for Michigan’s economy.”

In a 2011 speech recorded by ThinkProgress, Hagerstrom told the Conservative Political Action Conference, “We fight these battles on taxes and regulation, but really, what we would like to see is to take the unions out at the knees so they don’t have the resources to fight these battles.” Asked about those comments, Hagerstrom told Salon he “threw out a sports analogy” as part of explaining “the damage that the union culture, the union bosses, have done.” He added that he hopes the absence of mandatory contributions will force unions to put “their focus more on workers.”

On a Monday conference call with reporters, U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow said that if Snyder signs right-to-work, “it’s going to be many, many years before we recover.” Estrada told Salon that the UAW retains “the hope that Governor Snyder will take real leadership” and back away from the bill. But she added, “I don’t think we’re going to change his mind.”

By Josh Eidelson

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