DETROIT – You don’t have to look too far back to see where all the anti-labor legislation in Michigan came from. Union household votes have been declining.
The statewide election of November 2010, said Michigan AFL-CIO President Karla Swift, “set up all the bad things” that happened in 2011 and 2012, capped off by passage of a right-to-work law in Michigan last December. But the years leading up to that fateful 2010 election – which led to entire Republican control of all offices of state government – could be foreseen in a gradual drop in union households voting.
The share of Michigan union households voting fell from 43 percent in 2000 to 28 percent in 2012 – representing a drop of 500,000 voters. “We need to use our power to build our way out of this hole we’re in,” Swift told delegates to the Michigan Building and Construction Trades Council’s 50th Convention last month. “And we have to work hard and fast as if our life depends on it – because it does.”
One way out of the hole may be by emulating what labor unions are doing in New Jersey, where the Garden State’s AFL-CIO has cultivated a long-term plan to attract union-member candidates to public office, evaluate their chances, and get them elected so that they can promote and defend organized labor’s causes. Swift and the Michigan AFL-CIO want to start a similar program here.
The trend of declining union household participation at the ballot box is a national one. Nationwide, union household voting share topped out in the last two decades at 24 percent in 2000, falling to 18 percent in 2012. “The union household vote has gone down in every state except New Jersey, and that’s why it’s important to listen to what happened there,” Swift said.
“It’s critical to educate and inform union households, but we have to make them excited and bought-in to the process,” Swift said. “And one of the ways to do that is to bring them into the process as candidates.”
Michigan AFL-CIO Political Organizing Director Miles Baker told building trades delegates that union households “will be more excited if a union brother or sister is running for office.” He said the state AFL-CIO is starting a program for candidates where “we’ll let them know we will work with them, we share their values and we have their back.”
First comes the hard part: finding and cultivating union candidates for public office. If running for local city councils, mayor, school boards, county commissions, and even statewide offices like state representatives and senators were easy, well-paying and fun, everybody would do it. But finding recruits is not impossible – there are currently 900 union household members holding public office in Michigan.
Baker and Brittany Smith, the state AFL-CIO’s legislative and policy director, told building trades delegates that the state federation is developing a “boot camp” for current and potential candidates for public office, to let them know what to expect during the process of campaigning. They said the boot camp would allow the union candidates to define themselves and their positions, address what their opponents are going to say about him, and then give them tools to spread their message.
“We will help them know their district, where to increase the vote, what the persuasion targets are, and what worked and didn’t work for past candidates,” Smith said. “But it’s not just about the candidate, it’s about the people on his team who will learn what works and what doesn’t work.”
Baker said candidates “won’t walk out of boot camp knowing everything. They will still have to knock on doors. But boot camp will help with fundraising, building a team, defining roles – all the first steps to run for a new campaign.”
Potential union candidates who are interested in running for public office are asked to call the Michigan AFL-CIO, (517) 484-8427 for more information.