'Let them know you deserve to be paid what you're worth'
LANSING - "It's a tough time for workers," said state Rep. Andy Schor (D-Lansing), in his welcoming remarks on March 8 to delegates to the Michigan Building and Construction Trades Council's Legislative Conference.
And then Schor and a host of speakers following him drove that point home, each offering perspective on how the state's labor union members and other workers continue to be at a grave disadvantage - as they have for the past six years - when it comes to political clout.
The primary example Schor and others pointed to is the serious jeopardy that the Michigan Prevailing Wage Act is in: it's the target of an ongoing petition drive that would repeal the law and almost certainly lower construction workers' wages and likely introduce some chaos to the state's construction industry.
The petition drive, backed by big money donors, is likely restarting as the weather warms. If the signature gatherers are able to collect 252,523 valid names in a 180-day window, then the state Constitution requires the Michigan Legislature to vote on the petition language. If the Legislature does not adopt the language, the matter then goes to a vote of the people. Last year the Republican-dominated state Senate easily voted to repeal the law, but there was no vote taken in the House because repeal proponents feared that Gov. Rick Snyder would snub fellow GOPers and veto prevailing wage repeal.
Snyder has said he supports prevailing wage because the law sustains wages and makes it easier to attract and retain workers. However, the state Constitution does not give the governor any veto authority in petition-backed legislation.
"I need nine Republican lawmakers in the House to vote against their leadership," in order to save prevailing wage, Schor told delegates. "Frankly, that's very difficult. Am I confident? No, I don't have a lot of faith in the Republican delegation. But keep up the fight, especially in swing districts. Let them know you deserve to be paid what you're worth."
The building trades have been attempting to sway GOP lawmakers in those swing districts with lobbying efforts, member-to-member phone banks, e-mails and educational meetings.
As important as prevailing wage is to the building trades, there has been a whole litany of anti-worker measures adopted in Lansing since the Republican party started enjoying total control in 2010.
Republican lawmakers: instituted right-to-work laws for public and private workers, adopted a ridiculously inadequate road funding law, permanently cut unemployment benefits from 26 weeks to 20 weeks, outlawed local and statewide construction project labor agreements, weakened workers' compensation laws, instituted limitations on automatic dues deductions from workers paychecks, and weakened state plumbing, boiler and electrical boards.
"We have some friends on the Republican side of the aisle, and they will work with us," said Michigan Building and Construction Trades Council President Zane Walker. "But the actions of their caucus are driven by billionaires like the Devoses and the Koch brothers. They want you to work minimum wage on school jobs. How do you make a living on that?"
Walker pointed out to delegates that he is an active hunter and sportsman, and is a lifetime member of the National Rifle Association. But he said too many union members vote Second Amendment policy over politics. "But when it comes to making a living, my union card with the iron workers, not my NRA card, takes care of me and my family," he said.
After thanking union plumbers and the rest of the building trades unions for their efforts on behalf of the people of water-poisoned Flint, State Senate Democratic Leader Jim Ananich (D-Flint) said for organized labor and the rest of the working class, there is only one way out from under the heavy thumb of state Republican lawmakers and their big-money backers.
"We will fight with you for prevailing wage with our every last breath, and after, but we're going to need some help," Ananich said. "We need to win at least one branch of government in November; we need to win the state House,"
State Republicans control the House 63-47 and have held the House for 16 of the previous 22 years. Republicans control the Senate 27-11, but they don't have an election until 2018.
Mike Lynch, president of the Genesee-Lapeer-Shiawassee Building Trades Council, and a Genesee County Commissioner, bemoaned the lack of knowledge among most conservative state lawmakers when it comes to workers' issues, and the lack of involvement by union workers in the political process.
"The GOP doesn't understand prevailing rate, they don't understand right-to-work, they don't understand workers' comp or unemployment compensation," Lynch said. "It's killing us. Where we really screw up is when (a labor-backed candidate) has a 3-1 advantage in a district, and we just can't win the election. On some school boards and local election, we can't get anyone to run. We need to get our people into office."