LANSING - You may have heard once or twice from labor leaders over the last couple of decades that the next election is "the most important of our lifetime."
Enough of that. That's essentially what AFL-CIO Building Trades Department President Sean McGarvey on March 10 told delegates to the 56th annual Michigan Building and Construction Legislative Conference. After detailing the legislative outlook in half a dozen states where collective bargaining rights or pro-union laws like prevailing wage have indeed hung in the balance of recent statewide elections, McGarvey said that situations "where every election is a crisis" must stop. He specifically referred to elections that have led to anti-labor legislation in Michigan, Wisconsin, Indiana and Kentucky, among others.
"I tell you all this because this is the reality you live in in Michigan, and in the Midwest," McGarvey said. "We're talking about the strength of the labor movement is at stake in these fights. On our board we're trying to have a rational discussion on how we got here and how we get out of it. And we don't have the answers about how we get out of it yet. But I can tell you this. The economic security of our members can't be hanging in the balance every time we lose a governor's mansion, or every time a state legislative body flips. We can't be there! We have to figure out a different way."
McGarvey said that local chambers of commerce don't worry about going out of business if a state government becomes under single-party rule of Democrats, and unions shouldn't be in a position of worrying about passage of right-to-work laws or prevailing repeal if Republicans take over control of all branches of government. But that is exactly what's happening in Michigan, Indiana and Wisconsin, and where anti-labor laws are being pushed in numerous other states like West Virginia, California, Illinois, and Missouri.
Republicans control 68 of the 100 legislative chambers among the U.S. states (Nebraska's is unicameral) according to Ballotpedia, and vetoes of many of the Democratic governors in those states can be overridden by simple GOP majority votes in the legislatures. In 23 states, the GOP has complete control, with holds on the governor's seat and majorities in both legislative chambers.
Those GOP numbers, McGarvey said, illustrate why the building trades and the rest of organized labor need to be reaching out to Republican lawmakers with a business case for rejecting right-to-work and issues like prevailing wage repeal. "We have to take a business perspective on how we engage," he said. "How do we make a business case that advances the cause of our existing members, and those who wish to join our ranks?"
McGarvey offered pointed examples in various states where even relationships with a handful of approachable Republican lawmakers has blunted anti-labor legislation. He said all Republicans certainly aren't anti-labor - but the GOP majorities have consistently made it clear that there's a perception that union dues check-off money goes straight to the Democratic Party. And the GOP doesn't like it, and is fighting back.
"We can wish for how things used to be," McGarvey said, "but we cannot continue to follow the program we have followed for the last 30 years. Politics is not a marriage. It's a business."
Following McGarvey's talk, Ohio Building and Construction Trades Council Secretary-Treasurer Dennis Duffey provided some hands-on advice based on how trade union leaders are dealing with an all-Republican leadership situation in the Buckeye State's capital. Unlike Lansing, there is no right-to-work law that's being successfully pushed in Columbus, nor is prevailing wage repeal currently much of a threat.
Duffey said key Republican lawmakers have become much more receptive to building trades' policy pitches on issues like prevailing wage repeal, but only after union leaders doing the pitching first developed some kind of relationship with the lawmaker.
"If we want to protect our members' health and welfare and wages, we can no longer be cornered into supporting a one-party system," Duffey said. "Everyone who has a stake in how the state government is run should have friends on both sides of the aisle."
Duffey said the building trades have been able to stave off anti-worker legislation like prevailing wage repeal and right-to-work by approaching GOP lawmakers with a simple list of desires, a unified message and a limited number of messengers. One GOP lawmakers, over dinner with a few union reps, Duffey said, first dropped some f-bombs related to union labor giving his Democratic political opponent monetary support by a margin of about 99-1. Turns out, that Republican lawmaker later supported prevailing wage, but until then had never been approached by labor reps to see if they could work together. "I could see his point," Duffey said.
Duffey said another Republican leader in the state senate had talked to the anti-union Associated Builders and Contractors, but had no idea how small a player the ABC is in the construction industry. Or, that union trades and their contractors self-fund their training and pensions, and don't rely on a seniority-based workforce.
One Michigan lawmaker, state Sen. Tom Casperson (R-Escanaba) is one Republican who "gets it," as far as organized labor is concerned. He was one of only four Republican senators who voted against Michigan's right-to-work law, which was adopted in 2012. "I'm not an anti-labor Republican," he told building trades delegates. "I push back at people like the environmental lobby, who claim that when we build things we want to destroy things," like natural resources. "Who likes to destroy things?"
Casperson said he is "not happy" with the GOP-led leadership in the Michigan House and Senate, who made it their top priority this year to eliminate or scale back the state's Prevailing Wage Act of 1965. He called prevailing wage "a nice equalizer," in the construction industry, and pledged to keep working with the GOP caucus to leave prevailing wage alone.
Michigan Building and Construction Trades Council legislative leaders are pursuing relationships with GOP lawmakers through Casperson and others, to stave off prevailing wage repeal.
"I hope we never again get trapped by a one-party system," Duffey said. "Policy doesn't mean anything if you're wrong on the politics."