Paul Adair is a 21-year Germantown resident, retired scientist, writer, and lecturer.
In an upper Midwest state that is still recovering from the recession, the public desperately wants legislative action on jobs. However, the heavily Republican/Tea Party state legislature has other priorities. They introduce an unpopular anti-union bill that they did not campaign on. To placate police and firefighter unions which have supported them, the legislators exempt these groups from the changes. The bill is passed while brazenly ignoring the state's Open Meetings laws. Many of the more moderate Republican legislators are coerced into supporting the bill by threats of primary challenges from the right.
Thousands of the state's citizens make their way to the capital in a vain attempt to stop the assault on worker's rights. The Capitol building is locked down and the State Police are called-out in force. The Governor, elected during the 2010 Republican election tidal wave, eagerly signs the bill. Out-of state billionaires, including the Koch brothers, get the legislation that they paid for. Opponents of the draconian law vow to fight on in court and through the petition process.
I know it sounds like 2011 Wisconsin, but I'm talking about 2012 Michigan.
Last week, twin bills covering so-called “Right to Work” were rushed through both houses of the Michigan Legislature in a lame duck session. One bill covered public sector workers and the other, private sector employees. The bills were necessarily rushed through during the last month of the year. Despite unconscionable gerrymandering of state districts, the Republicans lost seats from both houses in November's elections. There was a question whether the anti-union bills could be passed by next year's slightly more progressive legislatures.
The tactics used in passage were shady enough to make Scott Fitzgerald blush. There was no opportunity for public input. There was no heed paid to open meetings laws. An unconnected one million dollar appropriation was added to the bills, a cynical move making it more difficult to force a public referendum on the two laws.
“Right to Work” is a misnomer. In the US, no one is forced to join a union at their place of employment. However, unions are required to represent all workers, both individually and in contract negotiations. In states that are not “Right to Work”, union workers pay dues and workers who choose to not join pay “agency fees” to cover the expenses of their union representation. In “Right to Work” states, the non-union employees are not required to pay the agency fees. They get a free ride, or free representation, while their union coworkers must still pay their dues.
Of course, if you have the choice between free representation and paying for it, which would you choose? Given that choice, many employees become freeloaders. “Right to Work” is entirely analogous to people enjoying the benefits of living in an advanced society, but being given an option of whether to pay their taxes. The end results of “Right to Work” laws are much poorer and weaker unions. Business owners are happy, because they are dealing with less effective unions. Also, RTW states have lower wages for ALL workers. Many Republicans are happy because strong unions are a traditional source of Democratic support.
The two bills were signed into law on Tuesday by Governor Snyder. In an interview with Andrea Mitchell, Snyder said, ““I’ve met a number of people that said they would like to choose to join the union or have the flexibility not to ...” Clearly, Snyder did not even understand the bills that he signed. The law does not address the right to refrain from joining a union, which is already guaranteed by Federal Law.
Michigan's Republicans opened up their state to the same sort of deep division and partisan rancor that has split Wisconsin during the past two years. Not caring what they are doing to their state and its citizens, their sole motivation is to gain political advantage. However, the fight by Michigan citizens against these laws has only just begun. A Tuesday headline in the Detroit Free Press read, “It's the Law, But It's Not Over “. The day after Snyder signed the bills, two lawsuits were already filed to roll back the laws.
The Michigan Constitution has several other “tools” that are being considered for this fight. In addition to a recall system for officeholders, the state has a petition procedure for forcing a referendum on unpopular laws. This requires signatures equal to 5% of the number of votes in the last gubernatorial election to get on the ballot. Because the small, non-relevant appropriation attached to the bill ruled this out, a more circuitous route needs to be followed. By getting 8% of voters to sign a petition, Michigan citizens can initiate a new bill for consideration by the legislature. In this case, it would be a bill negating “Right To Work” laws. If the bill is rejected by the Legislature or vetoed by the Governor, it then appears as a referendum on the ballot
Michigan Democrats have been willing and able to work with Governor Snyder the past two years. He seemed to be a pragmatic politician who was focused on improving his state's economy. He constantly repeated that drastic changes in laws covering unions were “not on his agenda”. A half-hearted attempt last year to recall the Governor did not even collect enough signatures to force an election. However, in one short week of incredible overreach, Michigan Republicans have changed all that. The Michigan electorate has been awakened. The state has been split by an unnecessary and politically-motivated Republican power grab. Michigan has "gone all Wisconsin" on us.