LANSING - Like it or not, the political fortunes and the very existence of much of organized labor - as unsettled as they are - are nearly completely in the hands of Republican lawmakers in Michigan and in Washington D.C.
That theme was played over and over by speakers at the 58th Legislative Conference of the Michigan Building and Construction Trades Council. Right to work is here in Michigan and in other states, and prevailing wage repeal is knocking at the door. Those issues are also starting to crop up in the GOP-led Congress in Washington D.C.
"We had a good lame duck session," said Michigan House Minority Leader Sam Singh (D-Lansing) offering a small consolation in introductory remarks to building trades delegates. That doesn't sound like much, but it's about the best anyone could muster in the current political environment. The fact that there wasn't any anti-labor legislation adopted at the end of 2016 was just about the only thing anyone in the Democratic Party or among organized labor could can get excited about these days.
"Our job is to try to make lemonade out of lemons," North America's Building Trades Unions President Sean McGarvey told delegates.
Everything wasn't completely doom and gloom for labor. In the same lame duck session, one bright spot was the passage of a new state energy bill that quite literally keeps the door open for the state's major utilities to continue to renovate old plants and build new ones on Michigan soil. Failure to pass the legislation could have led to Michigan becoming an electrical free-market, importing power but not producing it. Perhaps most importantly, construction opportunities are good in just about every corner of the state, and 2017 looks to be an excellent year for the trades.
The political situation for Dems is dire, but the building trades have made inroads in other areas that is having a spin-off affect with conservative lawmakers. Two major victories have been the dual petition efforts in 2015 and 2016, that both failed to overturn the Michigan Prevailing Wage Act. Michigan Building and Construction Trades Council Secretary-Treasurer Patrick Devlin told delegates that outreach efforts would continue to attempt to make friends on both sides of the aisle. "The successes we have had," he said, "have been because of the partnerships we developed with the owner base, and the contractor base."
Labor's traditional ties with the Democratic Party came under scrutiny by several speakers. Part of the answer is to reach out to moderate Republicans, where possible, to support the issues of working people, but lawmakers in Lansing and in Washington who are not hard-right ideologues have become a vanishing breed. And the Democratic Party is, in many ways, without a rudder, and without much of a defining vision for what it wants to be.
"My Democratic Party has a problem," said state Rep. Jim Elder (D- Bay City). "I remember a time when my party was clearly and indisputably the voice of the working man and woman in America, and that was true for a very long time. But based on the elections in November, it's not clear that all of our working people believe that any more. And part of the problem is that some in my party have forgotten their own history and perhaps they don't realize just how progressive organized labor truly is."
He added: "The party has simply got to do a better job of listening to our original base, the working person."
The political woes of Democrats and their traditional benefactors from organized labor are well documented. Republican lawmakers control every lever of power in the state Legislature, the governor's office, Congress and the White House. That lack of legislative clout translates into the inability to kindle any sort of legislative agenda, including having a say in redistricting, appointing judges, or putting people in civil service jobs who understand organized labor.
McGarvey acknowledged, "If 10 years ago we could have built relationships with people on both sides of the aisle, in the state legislatures and in Congress, I think we would be in a different place."
Congressman Dan Kildee (D-Flint) told delegates that the current political situation in Washington is "frustrating" with all the uproar in the Trump Administration. "He's not our choice, but we have one president at a time," Kildee said. "The current chaos might be getting in the way of some common ground that we have with the president that could benefit working people in this country."
Kildee said better trade agreements and greater spending on infrastructure might be on the way. "When we start talking about a trillion, or a trillion and a half in potential infrastructure spending, and then they're talking about undoing the Davis-Bacon provisions," he said. "That's a battle we're going to have to fight."
Dennis Duffey, secretary-treasurer of the Ohio Building and Construction Trades Council, told Michigan delegates that his state is similarly in complete control of the Republican Party. But there have been no serious conservative threats at making Ohio a right-to-work state or repealing prevailing wage. He said in the Buckeye State, the strategy has been to win friends across the political spectrum with personal contacts with politicians and big-money players, disseminating positive information about the benefits of hiring unionized building trades, and targeting political contributions to Democrats and Republicans.
Duffey said one strategy the trades employed was to let their money do the talking with big bankers in the state, who have influence in conservative circles. He said the trades collectively had more than $1 billion invested in pension and health and welfare plans, a good portion of that in-state, and they made sure the money managers knew where that money came from, and what issues are important to the people doing the investing. "There's a way to deliver the message if you look hard enough," Duffey said.
Then, he said building trades leaders in Ohio took a look at where their political contributions were going, and made some adjustments. Over the past two-year political cycle, he said, Ohio union trades contributed more than $1 million to Republican lawmakers. The results speak for themselves: no right to work and no prevailing wage repeal. "I was wrong all those years casting our lot with one political party," Duffey said.