The Building Tradesman Newspaper

Friday, October 26, 2012

Will Michigan take the high-wage road – or the low road?

By Marty Mulcahy, Editor

Forget all the other times you’ve heard that this is the most important election of your life.

This time, it is.

At the top of the Nov. 6 general election ticket in what promises to be a close election are two candidates, Democratic President Barack Obama and GOP challenger Mitt Romney, who hold widely different views on how the nation should move past the lingering effects of the Great Recession. Also at stake are control of the U.S. Senate, where Sen. Debbie Stabenow-D is facing off against challenger Pete Hoekstra-R. And 15 Michigan House of Representatives positions are also on the ballot.

On Michigan’s statewide ballot, the stakes have never been higher for organized labor. A “yes” vote on Proposal 2 will enshrine union rights in the state Constitution, and stave off a likely effort to make Michigan a right-to-work state by the end of 2012. In this election Michigan voters also have the opportunity to vote for a more worker-friendly state Supreme Court, put a Democratic majority in the state House, which would place a blocker on the avalanche of Republican-backed, anti-worker legislation that has been introduced in Lansing over the past 20 months.

“There’s a lot of money out there pushing the anti-union agenda,” said IBEW lobbyist Todd Tennis. “You can see it in Lansing, labor is outnumbered by the corporate lobbying interests by 10-1. The challenge is how to rally our own people to vote, and have them explain to others who don’t understand labor, why all this is important.”

The unending beat-down of organized labor has come from virtually the entire Republican caucus of the Michigan House and Senate. Gov. Rick Snyder came to office at the same time as the rest of the Republican-dominated state Legislature, but he has done nothing in the way of vetoing any of the anti-worker laws that have been adopted. And at the top of the national ticket, Romney has trashed unions in public comments and has embraced the idea of a national right-to-work law.

“The corporate special interests and their supporters in the Republican Party will stop at nothing to make sure that people’s rights are lessened and wages are lowered,” said Jonathon Byrd, legislative director for the Michigan Laborers District Council. “Labor’s fight is always about wages, hours and conditions. Republicans are trying to scale all that back, but working people are fully engaged this election and they’re ready to fight back.”

Byrd pointed out that since January 2011, state Republicans have cut jobless workers’ benefits by $2,000 when they cut unemployment week benefits from 26 to 20. They made it more difficult for workers to get workers’ compensation benefits. Project labor agreements on taxpayer funded projects have been eliminated. The Michigan Prevailing Wage Act is very close to being overturned. And, most political observers see passage of a Republican-backed right-to-work law during the lame-duck session of the state Legislature in November or December of this year if Proposal 2 is defeated.

Back in 2007, the Michigan Building and Construction Trades Council hosted a seminar at Michigan State University on the potential effects in Michigan of a right-to-work law and loss of the state’s prevailing wage law. Several speakers alluded to states choosing to take either a “low-wage” vs. a “high wage” path toward prosperity.

The “low-wage” path, they said, usually involved using right-to-work laws and low wages to attract businesses. The high-wage path, which has been Michigan’s and much of the nation’s path through the 1970s, called for paying workers well, allowing them to have “better lives, better life spans and more leisure,” said MSU Professor Dale Belman.

But right-to-work laws, he said, represent a move in the opposite direction, part of an economic theory that if society waits long enough, wealth will trickle down to workers.

“If jobs move to an area because that area offers low wages and exploits the labor force, is that really a development strategy today in a global economy?” asked Paula Voos, a professor in the School of Management and Labor Relations at Rutgers University in New Jersey. “I would contend no, it’s not. Because there are many other places no matter what you do to lower the wage scale, there are many other places, like in China, that have lower wages.”

Belman said: “When you take away prevailing wage and introduce right to work, you take the low road, the low-wage path.” The problem is, he added, is “that low-wage path is no longer open in the United States.” He said the economic strategy of employers moving plants to the South, where wage rates were two-thirds lower, doesn’t work any more because of countries like Mexico and China are waiting with even cheaper workforces.

Voting “yes” on Proposal 2 would help keep Michigan workers on the “high wage” path. “Getting this opportunity in this election by voting yes on Proposal 2 to protect workers’ rights and put it in the state constitution is an opportunity that may never come again in our lifetime,” Byrd said.