In Michigan, the birthplace of the labor movement, this week’s abrupt passage of a “right-to-work” law incited the largest protest in Lansing’s history: at least 12,500 people, wearing red, chanting, singing, drumming, committing civil disobedience, and otherwise battling to be heard as lawmakers in a lame-duck session overhauled the state’s labor laws without public input or committee meetings. State house Democrats’ attempts to pass amendments that would, for example, put right-to-work up for a public vote or eliminate the $1 million appropriation seemingly designed so that the law withstands the threat of voter referendum, all failed. That $1 million appropriation is supposed to go toward educating workers and union about life under right-to-work, and, in the budget-strained state, it’s not clear what the source of the money will be.
Barely two hours after it left the House, and just days after it got on the agenda, Republican Governor Rick Snyder signed the bill. The overhaul will affect both public and private employees (police and fire excepted). Once the law takes effect in the spring, Michigan will become the 24th right-to-work state, and the second in the past decade. The only other states to pass right-to-work in the last 25 years? Oklahoma did it in 2001, and Indiana in 2011, becoming the first state in the Rust Belt to do so.
In Michigan on Tuesday, the display of public dissent prompted authorities to close the Capitol when they said it reached its 2,000-person capacity. Several Lansing streets were shut to traffic and some police wore riot gear. Two school districts closed for the day because of teachers and other workers joining in the demonstrations. Former Democratic Rep. Mark Schauer, a member of Laborers union Local 355, was among those hit with pepper spray as he led protestors outside the Capitol. Ironically, a rallying point for protesters was the Romney building—named for George Romney, the father of Mitt and the former governor who, in 1965, helped craft the very labor laws that right-to-work undercuts. The Romney building houses Snyder’s office, and stands as a reminder of legislation that Governor Romney and bipartisan lawmakers passed that provided full collective bargaining rights to public employees and improved bargaining rights for private employees.
Now that Michigan, with its symbolic power as the home of the United Auto Workers, has become a right-to-work state, what’s next for workers concerned about fair wages and fair working conditions? What is the long view of organizers here?
Those I spoke with say there is no substitute for votes. They are acutely aware that right-to-work passed in part because of unprecedented Republican and Tea Party wins in 2010—they took control of Michigan’s House, Senate, Supreme Court, and the offices of the governor, attorney general, and secretary of state. Redistricting followed, putting progressive leaders in Michigan at an even greater disadvantage. The 2012 election saw some Democratic gains, however; enough for the GOP to decide to use the lame-duck session to move swiftly not only on right-to-work but on other controversial measures too, including serious limits to reproductive rights.
“The Obama campaign did a good job of training organizers in 2008, but people didn’t seem to realize that in politics, you don’t just win once, but you have to keep winning,” said Chris Savage of Eclectablog, a popular progressive site with a Michigan focus. We talked as he was driving to Lansing to join the demonstrations on Tuesday. “The upshot is that we lost everything in 2010, and we need to start seriously looking at 2014. We need to harness the emotions people are feeling right now and do more work.”
When I asked Sarah Schillio, a legislative aide for Representative Jeff Irwin, a Democrat from Ann Arbor, what the best thing for Michigan people concerned about right-to-work to do, she said, “they should vote. That is literally the only thing that can happen.”
But how to keep voters motivated when the next major election is nearly two years out? Savage hopes local organizers start building local wins that can keep momentum going. More concretely, he said organizers have a lot to learn from the excellent coordination of conservative groups, like the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a think tank in Michigan.
“They waited a long time for their day in the sun, and when it came, they were ready to go,” Savage said. “We won’t be successful unless we learn from that. We can’t come into power and spend 6 or 12 months hemming and hawing about what we’re going to do next.”
Coalition building is the other major strategy for Michigan organizers. Too often, environmental groups fought for environmental issues, labor for labor issues, women’s rights activists for women’s rights—and little to no energy has been spent on common cause. This week’s right-to-work protests brought diverse activists and citizens together in an all-too-rare way. That collective power needs to be carried forward for exponential political influence.
One such effort at collaboration is We Are Michigan. It describes itself on its website as “a coalition of faith, community, labor and progressive groups united by a common commitment to strengthening Michigan’s middle class.” The labor organizer I spoke to from the coalition said that it launched days ago, specifically as a response to the right-to-work threat. It focused first on facilitating the “Day of Action” in Lansing on Tuesday. Created on December 9, its Facebook page had 56,500 “likes” by December 11.
The labor organizer I spoke with said right-to-work is not a “final defeat” for Michigan, and that activists are considering a number of responses, both legal and political. While the appropriation money in the right-to-work bill is getting a lot of attention as a savvy move by lawmakers to ensure that it cannot be overturned by voters, the organizer I spoke with said this isn’t quite true—right-to-work could still be overturned, not as a referendum but as a ballot initiative to “approve or reject” the law. This would mean, though, that it has to meet the higher threshold of turning in petitions with enough signatures to equal 8 percent of the turnout in Michigan’s last gubernatorial election—more than 258,000 signatures. Organizers will have 90 days to do it, starting after the legislature adjourns. If they are successful, right-to-work would then go to a state-wide vote.
A short-term tactic? Building union membership to help mitigate the threat of devastation from right-to-work, which will go into effect in April. Free riders who don’t pay union dues but get the benefits of labor wins are a real problem that won’t go away with an uptick in membership; this is part of why right-to-work is nonsensical in the first place, which Rich Yeselson wrote about beautifully. But more workers who are aware of their stake in collective bargaining, the better.
With the long view in mind, Savage said that he “thinks it’s important not to waste the next two years,” particularly with the heightened motivation and alarm felt this week by Michigan workers.
“I’m not a fan of fear and anger as a motivating tactic, but in the short run it can be effective,” Savage said. “We just have to figure out a way to turn that into something positive for the long term.”
Even as We Are Michigan considers large-scale responses, the labor organizer I spoke with detailed small actions as particularly powerful, including Michiganders and their allies nationally making intentional choices to put their money toward businesses and organizations that support labor rights.
“People need to stay involved, and talk to their friends and family,” he said. “While the outcome of today is not great for middle class people, the future depends on what we do tomorrow.”