Manufactured Emergency: The Neoliberal Assault on Michigan

About Jane Slaughter

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Those who want to privatize public services and destroy unions have made some successful incursions into the once union-friendly state. Whether Michiganders can mount an effective resistance remains to be seen.

 

**This article appears in PRA’s upcoming Fall, 2014 issue of The Public Eye magazine, a special edition on neoliberalism and the Right**

 

When Michigan Republicans decided to push through a so-called right-to-work bill in December 2012, schools in three districts were forced to close for a day because so many teachers went to the Capitol to protest. Several dozen protesters demonstrated in the Capitol Rotunda; nine were arrested.

Misnamed right-to-work laws make a certain type of agreement between a union and an employer illegal: union-represented employees may not be required to pay dues or near-equivalent “agency fees.” By law, the union is still obligated to represent non-paying workers as if they were members, which is why unions call the laws “right to freeload.” Since a certain portion of the workforce will take advantage of the chance to save a few bucks, these laws weaken unions financially—including their political operations—as well as breaking up solidarity. A weaker union has less clout to defend its members at the bargaining table or on the shop floor.

But right-to-work in Michigan was a done deal, signed into law by Governor Rick “The Nerd” Snyder just a week after it was introduced. Unions hastily bused demonstrators to Lansing, bringing the crowd to 10,000, but Snyder remained unmoved. After all, the previous year his counterpart in Wisconsin, Scott Walker, had ignored crowds of up to a hundred thousand who kept the state in turmoil for a month as they protested an anti-union bill.

A central goal of the neoliberal project is to weaken unions, and state legislation is one method. Unions are anathema in the free-market ideology, since they constrain employers’ liberty to operate exactly as they please. Unions also bargain higher wages and benefits and give employees some workplace rights not to be ordered about like indentured servants—thus cutting into potential profits, in the private sector.

A Midwestern Trend

Several Midwestern states have become laboratories for such neoliberal experiments. Wisconsin’s legislature passed a bill in 2011 that required state employees to contribute more to their pensions and health insurance—the equivalent of an eight to 12 percent pay cut in some cases—and eliminated collective bargaining for most public employees on everything except base wages; raises were in practice limited to the rate of inflation.

In Ohio, the legislature passed a measure that effectively took away collective bargaining rights from  state employees, including those in higher education, changed their pay structure, and required many of them to pay at least 20 percent of the cost of their health care plans.  (Ohio voters later overturned this bill in a hard-fought referendum.)

Indiana became the first Rust Belt state to take the right-to-work path, in February 2012, as thousands of unionists shouted their anger from the Statehouse hallways.

Michigan made use of an “emergency manager” law, which allowed the governor—citing any of a variety of triggers—to appoint an unelected overseer to run towns or cities. This included those whose budgets were in the red. These managers used their authority to tear up union contracts. Detroit’s takeover by an emergency manager, and its subsequent bankruptcy, had a similar effect, with city employees taking wage and pension cuts.

Still, Michigan’s sudden move to become the 24th right-to-work state rocked the labor movement nationwide. A birthplace of industrial unionism, Michigan still enjoyed a 16.6 percent unionization rate, the seventh-highest in the country. Its premier union, the United Auto Workers, was treated in the press as a major political player. And yet Michigan had joined the ranks of anti-union strongholds like Mississippi and Wyoming.

Too Divisive

How did right-to-work come about in the seemingly solid union state of Michigan? Governor Snyder had previously said it was too divisive and not on his political agenda. So, union members and supporters were shocked when the governor announced his change of heart. United Auto Workers (UAW) President Bob King, who had 151,000 members and 190,000 retirees in the state, said the governor’s about-face had “blindsided” him.

But the plan to make Michigan right-to-work was actually long brewing. With its record of voting for Democratic presidents, Michigan was a tempting target for such billionaire-funded national groups as Americans for Prosperity (founded by the Koch brothers) and for the state’s home-grown billionaire, Richard  DeVos of the Amway fortune. As Lee Fang reported for The Nation, Americans for Prosperity’s Michigan chapter quadrupled its spending in 2010, the year Snyder was elected, to $1.1 million. The Mackinac Center, a longtime right-wing think tank in the state, spent $5.7 million on Michigan-based advocacy in 2011. (DeVos is a funder of both groups.)

Mark Brewer, who was then the Michigan Democratic Party chair, dated the plotting for right to work to at least 2007. A video shows former Michigan Republican Party Chair Ron Weiser speaking to a Tea Party meeting in August 2012. Weiser, who was  finance chair of the Republican National Committee, described meeting with DeVos, former Michigan Governor John Engler (now with the Business Roundtable), representatives from Americans for Prosperity, and Frank Keating, the former governor of Oklahoma which passed right-to-work in 2001. (The CEO of Oklahoma’s Chamber of Commerce had admitted he can’t name any companies that moved to Oklahoma because of right-to-work.  But that inconvenient fact, which holds true in other states as well, has not deterred the pro-right-to-work forces from claiming to be “job creators.”)

Weiser says the group decided not to move on right-to-work until Republicans controlled both the legislature and the governorship. Those elements were in place by January 2011, but in February the tumultuous uprising against anti-union measures kicked off in next-door Wisconsin, bringing tens of thousands of union members and progressives repeatedly to the Capitol, and demonstrations in cities and small towns across the country.

So Michigan’s neoliberal strategists instead pursued a piecemeal strategy: appointing emergency managers to run financially troubled cities and throw out union contracts; taking away the lifeline of teachers’ automatic union dues deductions; rescinding domestic partner benefits for public employees; defining university research assistants as non-workers; and a host of other measures designed not to rile everyone at once.

Proactive Strategy

To head off the possibility of right-to-work and to nullify all these laws that were interfering with collective bargaining, the UAW’s King and allied unions developed an offensive plan, to pass a constitutional amendment. Proposal 2, on the November 2012 ballot, would have made collective bargaining a constitutional right in the state.

But campaign leaders were reluctant to be specific about any particular laws that Proposal 2 would have outlawed, according to Mark O’Keefe, a staffer for the Detroit Federation of Teachers. O’Keefe said leaders were afraid that any specific was likely to offend someone. Meanwhile, Proposal 2 was opposed by every business interest in the state, some of whom mounted a $30 million disinformation campaign. This included ads from a front group called Citizens for Protecting Michigan’s Constitution claiming that the bill would prevent school districts from firing child molesters. Proposal 2 went down to defeat decisively, 57 to 42 percent.

Locked In

Because of an accident of timing, it’s still too soon to know how right-to-work will play out in Michigan’s largest private-sector contracts, the UAW’s pacts with the Big 3 automakers. The law doesn’t affect contracts already in place, and the Big 3’s won’t expire until September 2015.

UAW leaders, though they decried right-to-work, were oddly complacent about the prospect of losing a chunk of their union’s core members.   The UAW convention this summer—which took place as King retired– even voted to raise dues by 25 percent—surely a disincentive for wavering members to stay on board.

Teachers’ local unions took a different tack, quickly opening up existing contracts and bargaining new ones before right-to-work was due to take effect in March 2013. By signing new contracts under the old law, they locked in dues or the agency fee as a funding stream for the length of the new contracts. In most cases, though, those contracts were concession-filled, as management bargainers took advantage of leaders’ desperation.

A conservative think tank monitoring unions’ efforts to “dodge” right-to-work reported that at least 54 school districts signed contracts before the deadline. In Detroit, teachers signed a pay freeze through 2016—after already taking huge cuts in 2010 and 2011. In Taylor, a blue-collar suburb, the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) locked in 10 years of agency fee and took a 10 percent pay cut.

Attack on Tenure

Perhaps the example that shows most clearly how the attack on unions fits with other neoliberal aims is at Detroit’s Wayne State University. Allan Gilmour, then-president of Wayne State (who had been a top officer at Ford Motor Co.), had made headlines a few months before right-to-work was passed, when he proposed that Wayne become among the first major U.S. universities to effectively end tenure. Allies of the union quickly got 6,000 signatures on an online petition, and Gilmour backed down.

But this set the stage for the university to take the offensive during contract negotiations. The union representing 1,950 full-time faculty bargained eight years of dues security but, said chief negotiator Anca Vlasopolos, “We had to make concessions to obtain the length of the contract.”

Decrying the “corporatization” hitting universities everywhere, Vlasopolos said the faculty union was forced to concede on issues that affected the quality of education at Wayne State. “We were not able to hold on as strongly to things that were very dear to our hearts and important for the university to remain a university,” she said.

In particular, under the pressure of settling before the deadline, the question of online teaching—where professors now have no say and may have as many as 350 students in a class—was put off to a committee.

“The aim of the corporate university is to become a diploma mill and rely on a large percentage of part-time teachers,” Vlasopolos said, while the union’s aim is to “make sure we don’t become a University of Phoenix.”

If unions in Michigan do end up substantially smaller, workers will have less bargaining power and therefore can expect even weaker contracts: lower wages, higher payments for health insurance, and less protection against workload increases. After Walker’s successful attack on public employees in Wisconsin, unions there were caught in a vicious spiral: with unions’ right to bargain eviscerated, workers could see less reason to pay dues. As members dropped out in droves, the unions’ infrastructure was weakened and they could do far less to make themselves relevant. Said John Matthews, longtime leader of the Madison teachers’ local: “working conditions have been rolled back to the mid-1950s by some regressive public employers.”

At the Michigan unions’ 2012 anti-right-to-work rally, Teamsters President James Hoffa, who is from the state, admitted that the way back for unions will be a long fight. The slide down has been long, too, but it’s accelerating.

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1, 2, 3, 4. AP Photo/Carlos Osorio
Jane Slaughter is the former editor of Labor Notes, the independent monthly magazine for labor activists, and is based in Detroit.