The Building Tradesman Newspaper

Friday, March 22, 2013

The Michigan Building Trades Legislative Conference Options are few for labor’s agenda as the state GOP holds all the cards

By Marty Mulcahy, Editor

LANSING – “The governor and his buddies in the legislature have launched an all-out assault on working families.”

That opening statement by State House Minority Leader Tim Greimel (D-Auburn Hills) to delegates to the Michigan Building and Construction Trades Council’s 54thLegislative Conference pretty much encapsulated everything that has gone on in this town for the last two years – and will likely go on until the end of 2014.

Greimel and others pointed out what delegates already knew. Gov. Rich Snyder and the majority Republican lawmakers in the state House and Senate have cut business taxes by $1.7 billion while paying for it by eliminating tax breaks for pensioners, lowering MIOSHA safety standards, adopting a right-to-work law, and are targeting the elimination of the state’s prevailing wage law.

“They’re not done,” Greimel said. “There are no boundaries, no restraints on their attacks on working people.”

Added State Rep. Tom Cochran (D-Mason): “I want to be upbeat and tell you that things are turning around in Michigan. But I don’t think I need to tell you that there is a war on workers in this state.”

The annual legislative conference was held March 5-6. Delegates were told that organized labor and their allies in the Democratic Party will have little opportunity to change the anti-worker culture in Lansing until the November 2014 elections. Much work needs to be done until then, said Lon Johnson, the newly elected chairman of the Michigan Democratic Party. “When Democrats lose, bad things happen to the building trades in Michigan,” he told delegates. “We need to take a hard look at understanding what’s going on, make a plan, and start fighting back now.”

Johnson said statewide, Dems need to raise money and basically double the party’s budget, improve outreach to African-American and other minority voters, use technology to engage voters, emulate President Obama’s get-out-the-vote operation, and recruit candidates for public office.

“Recruit, recruit, recruit,” he said. “There’s nothing more important than recruiting new candidates. If we’re not adding, we’re dying.”

Johnson said when it comes to the issues to illustrate the problem to members, “we’ve got everything we need. Right to work. The senior pension tax. And next, prevailing wage. We need to take all of that anger and move it in the right direction. When you’re not involved, bad things happen.”

State Sen. Tom Casperson (R-Escanaba) was one of the handful of Republican lawmakers who voted against right-to-work in Michigan. Invited to speak at the conference, he said he comes from a union family, “and I did not go into public office to go after labor. That was the last thing on my mind.”

He said he talked to his nephew, who works in a unionized Upper Peninsula paper mill and was questioning why he was paying union dues. Casperson said young people today “walk in the door” and have good wages, but don’t make the connection that people like his grandfather fought to bring in the union because of low wages and poor treatment on the job. “They don’t understand what will happen if we lose collective bargaining if the unions are busted,” Casperson said. “And some, unfortunately on my side, want that. If you allow a company to have free reign, you will pull wages down. Young workers don’t see that. They see dues money deducted but they didn’t see the fight at the beginning.”

Gov. Rick Snyder’s chief of staff Dennis Muchmore was invited to talk to delegates. And to his credit, he showed up, receiving a cool reception. He acknowledged the Snyder Administration’s “rocky relationship” with the state’s unions following passage of the right-to-work law last December . He said little about right-to-work, focusing much of his time on pending big-ticket construction projects, while praising building trades apprenticeship programs.

“I get asked what’s important about the building trades, and I say it’s the training,” he said. He predicted that two major projects – a new Detroit Red Wings arena and related developments, as well as a new Detroit River bridge – would get cleared to start in the next two months.

The building trades have lobbied heavily to get the governor to take any talk of prevailing wage repeal off the table by making a simple veto threat. But Muchmore, like his boss, offered no such commitment.

“The people representing the trades have gotten their shots in,” Muchmore said. “I don’t have any answers about prevailing wage; I don’t know what the legislature will do. I know prevailing wage has proven to be an asset to Michigan. I continue to be hopeful that they (the Legislture) have done enough things to upset the apple cart and are ready to do something together.”

Michigan AFL-CIO President Karla Swift said labor “has every reason to believe that more attacks are on the way. Gov. Snyder and the Republican legislators have proven that they can’t be trusted.”

Swift said labor leaders are pursuing “every possible political and legal challenge” to overturn the state’s right-to-work law. “And this law will be overturned,” she said. “I can’t tell you when, but it will. This is not a sprint; it’s a marathon. And the first step is Election Day 2014.”