The Building Tradesman Newspaper

Friday, March 16, 2012

‘We’ve had our share of tough days’ Labor’s course for a comeback goes through the House

By Marty Mulcahy, Editor

LANSING – The 53rd Michigan Building and Construction Trades Council Legislative Conference arrived at a time that was likely the most depressing point in the history of organized labor in the state.

A right-to-work law for Michigan could be put in place at any time. The state could lose MIOSHA tomorrow, too. Jobless benefits have been permanently cut. The hurdle to obtain workers comp benefits is getting higher. Last year at this time, the state's labor movement held out hope that there were a few state Republican lawmakers who might let their moderate sides show and rebuke some of the nastiest anti-labor legislation.

But when the votes have been posted, it was revealed that you could probably count the total number of GOP “moderates” in Lansing on the fingers of one hand. And the number of Democratic lawmakers in both the state House and Senate is so far in the minority that their votes rarely matter. And this is in what is traditionally a "Blue" state and the cradle of the labor movement in the U.S.

“What's going on at the state Capitol does not represent the majority of people in Michigan, and I remind myself of this on the tough days,” said state Senate Minority Leader Gretchen Whitmer (D-East Lansing). “And we've had our share of tough days.”

Go to and click on “Legislative” to see for yourself the 81 or so laws and proposals that are giving Michigan workers and senior citizens fits these days. Those pieces of legislation were the focus of the speakers at the conference who almost unanimously told the 140 delegates that the only way Michigan is going to stop any of it and restore political balance is for Democrats to win a majority in the House of Representatives.

Republicans currently own a 62-46 majority in the 110-member House, with two vacancies. All members’ seats are up for grabs for two-year terms on the Nov. 6 ballot. Elections in the Senate won’t take place until 2014. Until then, state Republicans will continue to enjoy a 26-12 super-majority in that body which is so large that could even override a veto of Gov. Rick Snyder.

“The last legislative year, led by state Republicans, has just been ridiculous,” said State Rep. Joan Bauer (D-Lansing) to the building trades delegates. “Luckily the law banning project labor agreements was overturned. But look at what else they've done. They cut revenue sharing to cities. They cut school funding. They cut police and fire. As if it weren't bad enough to have high employment, they cut unemployment benefit weeks from 26 to 20. And they had the gall to claim that cutting benefits would make more workers look for work. We need to unify and be very clear about what kind of future we want for Michigan. But to do that we have to elect people who are on our side.”

State Rep. Harold Haugh (D-Roseville) said the anti-worker effort Republican is nationwide, but Michigan is bearing a particularly difficult burden.

“There could be 150 cities and school district with an Emergency Financial Manager taking away local authority,” Haugh said. “I don’t want anyone coming into my community saying they’re going to break every collective bargaining agreement, sell off police and fire and take over the city. This was shoved down our throats on a party-line vote.”

Several speakers pointed out that major, groundbreaking decisions were made in Michigan over the past year that re-made our state in an effort to make it more “business friendly.” How did that come to pass? A confluence of the influence of the Tea Party, a willingness of conservative lawmakers to do their bidding to shrink government, the introduction of corporate interests –  many seeking to weaken unions, and the lack of enthusiasm by Democratic voters in 2010 (there were 450,000 fewer voters in 2010, when Republicans came to power, than in 2008).

“This year they can pass more anti-labor bills at any time; we can’t stop them,” Michigan Democratic Party President Mark Brewer told the building trades delegates.  “But in 2012, there’s no more important race than the state House.” He said Democrats won the state House in 2008 by winning nine Republican seats, and if history repeats itself, Dems will have a majority in the House in 2013. “We’re going to need as much grassroots help as possible,” Brewer said.

State Rep. Charles Brunner (D-Bay City) said some of the Republican proposals, such as the elimination of MIOSHA, “don’t make sense.” He said one GOP lawmaker claimed that eliminating MIOSHA would save the state $10 million a year. “What he doesn’t seem to understand is that half of MIOSHA’s $26 million budget is funded by fees, and half of it comes from the federal government,” Brunner said. “And if you eliminate MIOSHA, the contract for our job safety work would come out of Chicago.”

Brunner also expressed outrage at one of the first Republican proposal to be adopted into law last year: the $1.8 billion tax break offered to Michigan business, directly paid for by cutting into senior citizens’ pensions and eliminating the state earned income tax credit for poor people. “These are not the values of Michigan people,” he said.

In addition to talking to delegates about the collective bargaining rights petition initiative (see related article) Michigan AFL-CIO President Karla Swift said the state federation is also going on the information offensive. In place, she said, is the state AFL-CIO’s 2012 Jobs Plan, which is designed to “invest in people and places in Michigan and rebuilding our economy with good wages” and to end the tax-supported outsourcing of Michigan jobs.

She said there’s $28 million in Michigan-purchased business and services that are currently being provided by firms outside our state’s borders. The state federation is also calling for investment strategies to rebuilt Michigan’s infrastructure, attract more new technology jobs and improve schools and education.

The other part of the strategy, which lines up with the petition effort, “is to protect collective bargaining.” Swift said: “The states with the highest union density have the strongest middle class. And that’s where we want to be.”

Sen. Whitmer said the “shared sacrifice” called for by Gov. Snyder and state Republicans – including reducing senior pensions, slashing money to state schools, and reducing police and fire personnel – “was done without any metric that showed any of that will create a single job.”

Michigan is at a turning point, she said, “and races are won or lost by those who are brave enough to accelerate in the turn. I encourage you and your members to stay engaged about what’s going on in Michigan, and help steer the course for Michigan’s future.”