The Building Tradesman Newspaper

Friday, October 24, 2014

Vote Nov. 4: Show that labor still has muscles to flex

By Marty Mulcahy, Editor

Your pension. Your health care. Your wage scale. Your workplace safety. Your union.

Those things are really what will be on your ballot – should you choose to fill one out – on Election Day, Nov. 4.

Over the last few years in Michigan, union members in this state have been given a hard course in reality in being careful who they elect to serve them in the halls of the state Capitol Building in Lansing and in the halls of Congress.

A radical right-turn moved the political landscape like never before, bringing in a new breed of Republican lawmakers who did the bidding of their big-money donors and then did the unthinkable: they brought a right-to-work law to the most unlikely of states, Michigan.

“It seems like every month the GOP introduces a new bill in the legislature,” said IBEW lobbyist Todd Tennis of Capitol Services. “Putting in more hoops for workers to jump through before they can get  workers comp. Reducing unemployment compensation, which has just been devastating. Right to work. And the (Snyder) administration has always gone along. No matter how difficult they have made things for workers, it’s never enough.”

Pundits often say that both parties are the problem. In Michigan, when it comes to the war on workers and organized labor, that’s clearly not the case. The Republican Party is doing all the damage.

*All but four Republican senators and all but six Republican House members voted in favor of right-to-work bills that were adopted in Michigan in December 2012. No Democrats in either chamber voted in favor of RTW. One RTW bill was for the private sector, one was for public sector workers. Gov. Rick Snyder signed them both, opening the door for on-the-job free-loaders to enjoy the same benefits as union members, without having to pay dues.

The language in Michigan’s right-to-work bills was taken word for word from the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC). Funded by corporations and billionaires, it’s a right-wing organization that pushes an agenda focused on attacking workers’ rights, blocking access to affordable health care, de-funding and privatizing public education, suppressing voting rights, lowering taxes for corporations and the ultra-wealthy and cutting essential public spending.

*That infamous RTW vote was preceded in 2011 in Lansing by another GOP-backed resolution that permanently reduced unemployment compensation from 26 weeks to 20 weeks – just as the state was clawing its way out of the Great Recession. Snyder signed the bill. “It’s to encourage people to work. It’s not to have them go backward,” Snyder said at the time. “It’s easiest to find a job when you’ve gotten a job.” And under that philosophy, if you haven’t found a job, well, tough luck.

*With Republicans in control of the entire state government, it wasn’t the Democrats earlier this year who were holding hearings that would have eviscerated state licensing laws for electricians, and let janitors wire public buildings. Outrage from the industry and from organized labor helped quell the electrical licensing change proposals.

*It also wasn’t Democrats who cut $1.8 billion in taxes to businesses in 2011, while simultaneously hiking taxes on pensioners by $1.8 billion. That was one of the first pieces of legislation signed by Gov. Snyder.

*Gov. Snyder in June 2011 signed legislation that surely cut into the GOP philosophy of letting local units of government control their own business. The law Snyder signed – without a single Democrat voting in favor and without a single Republican voting against – outlawed state and local units of government from entering into project labor agreements on taxpayer-funded construction projects.

For a lot of local municipalities, there was a good business reason for knowing what to expect in terms of construction costs, customs and timelines before they entered into a building project. Lansing’s GOP lawmakers unanimously decided that they knew better, and besides, they could kiss the hienies of their friends in the Associated Builders and Contractors at the same time by putting the screws to the unionized construction industry.

*In December 2011 came passage of the Phantom Wage workers’ compensation bill – House Bill 5002 did much of what its big-business backers wanted by making it even more difficult for injured workers to get benefits. The Republican law says that full weekly benefits must continue for workers who make a good-faith effort to find work but can’t obtain work within his or her wage earning capacity. But the law now imposes a duty to seek work that’s “reasonably available.” So, highly paid construction workers, for example, who refuse to seek lesser paying work within their restrictions following work injuries risk the loss of workers’ comp benefits.  The new law leaves the door open for comp carriers to deny benefits, even to those whose disability will only be short term, unless they seek other work.

Snyder’s press release at the time said the bill “promotes certainty to workers and employers by codifying years of Supreme Court and Court of Appeals decisions.” Only four House Republicans joined a unanimous slate of Dems opposing the bill. In the Senate, zero Democrats voted for the bill, vs. a full slate of Republicans that voted ‘yes’ to reduce workers compensation access.

In addition to the right-to-work law, workers compensation restrictions, and unemployment compensation cutbacks, there were a bevy other laws adopted by the Michigan GOP lawmakers that zeroed in on reducing bargaining rights and benefits for teachers and public service workers.

“The building trades have made endorsements this year, and they’re primarily for Democrats,” Tennis said. “That’s because leaders in the building trades are asked by their members to protect pocketbook, economic issues for the membership. If members have other issues they think are more important, they will vote for other candidates. But when it comes to issues where unions are looking to protect the interests of members – pocketbook issues, safety – then the Dems have clearly been much more on our side.”