For organized labor in Michigan, the Tuesday, Nov. 6, 2012 general election will be (cliché alert) “the most important election of our lifetime.”
How many times have you heard that before?
Well, the same thing was probably mentioned once or twice before the Nov. 2, 2010 election. As it turns out, it probably was the most important – but not enough union members took heed. That year, pushed by the Tea Party, a move to the right by independent voters, disillusioned Democrats and a motivated conservative voting base, Republican lawmakers took firm control of the state House, Senate and governor’s office, and have gone on to make historic, anti-labor, pro-business laws that have transformed Michigan for years to come.
For Michigan’s unions, looking back, 2010 was the most important election of our lifetime. And the GOP have the rest of 2012, and perhaps beyond, to continue with their agenda.
“In the 2010 election, Republicans in Michigan had their biggest pickup since 1946 – 20 seats,” said Bill Ballenger, editor of Inside Michigan Politics newsletter. “The result has been very negative, obviously for organized labor in Michigan. Maybe not as confrontational as what’s gone on in Indiana and Wisconsin, but bad.”
Said State Rep. Lisa Brown (D-West Bloomfield): “We are paying the price for what a lot of union members did not do” in 2010: “vote.”
The list of anti-worker legislation on the docket in Lansing is a long one – it was at 95 last week, according to the Michigan AFL-CIO. The Emergency Financial Manager law allows the governor to appoint veritable dictators who can impose their power without voter input on local communities and abrogate union contracts at will.
Republican lawmakers have outlawed project labor agreements (although a federal judge overturned their law). A $1.6 billion tax cut for businesses was paid for by a tax on retiree pensions. Michigan was the first state in history to permanently lower benefits for jobless workers, from 26 to 20 weeks. Severe restrictions were placed on workers’ access to workers compensation benefits.
On deck, are just a few examples of bills awaiting legislative action: House Bill 4224 would repeal the Michigan Prevailing Wage Act. House Bill 5024 would impose penalties for mass picketing, fining individual violators $1,000 for each day of the violation. Senate Bill 729 would bring in a right-to-work law for school workers. House Bill 4059, adopted by the House, prohibits the state from paying union officials for conducting union business.
It has been well documented that Democratic voters stayed home on Election Day, 2010, and independents veered to the right, allowing the sweeping influx of conservative lawmakers and the resulting flood of anti-worker laws and legislation.
Ballenger said the 2010 vote in Michigan and in states across the country was in part due to disillusionment with the Obama Administration, a drop-off in voters who were super-motivated to vote for Obama in 2008, an historic advantage for Republicans voting in a mid-term election, plus a move to the right by independent voters. “That’s why you had the Republican tsunami,” Ballenger said.
That electoral brew led to Republicans enjoying their current 64-46 advantage over Dems in the Michigan House. The GOP number grew by one last week, when Democratic Grand Rapids state Rep. Roy Schmidt defected to the Republican side. In the Senate, the GOP has a whopping 26-12 majority, a number which won’t change this year because no Senate seats are on the ballot.
“If we don't get the House back,” said Michigan House Minority Leader Richard Hammel (D-48th District), “you will see a Republican movement that's even more energized to do whatever they want.”
Playing defense in this environment over the last 17 months has been a losing strategy for labor – Gov. Snyder and Senate Majority Leader Randy Richardville (R-Monroe) have not been the moderates that organized labor hoped they would be, so there has virtually been no check to the onslaught of anti-labor legislation.
Ballenger said historically, state Republicans always go to the polls in greater numbers during non-presidential election years, as they did in 2010. Conversely, he said Democrats are usually more likely to go to the polls during presidential election years like 2012. But this election year in Michigan, flipping the House of Representatives away from Republican control is the only way Dems can regain an element of control in how the state is governed. Can Democrats flip the House?
“The odds are against it, but it’s not impossible,” Ballenger said. “Don’t forget, Democrats picked up nine House seats in the 2008 election, so it can be done. But to say they can do it again in 2012, it’s going to be tough.”
Jonathon Byrd, legislative director for the Michigan Laborers District Council, said don’t count out the chances of Democrats re-taking the state House this year.
“I think the House is definitely in play,” he said. “Union members are fed up with all the attacks, and certainly labor will be highly motivated to vote to make a change. There are a lot of seats in the House that are in marginal districts, especially after the redistricting, which will make them competitive for us. Our members need to know that winning the House is the only way to restore balance in our state.”