LANSING, Mich. - Yesterday, Michigan's Republican Gov. Rick Snyder signed into law a bill designed to cripple organized labor in this state. Republicans hope that by curtailing the ability of unions to collect dues they will be able to lower wages and destroy their political opposition at the same time.
Here in Michigan and in all the rust belt states where GOP governors have taken a meat ax to workers' rights, unions are, however, mounting a counter offensive.
Individuals close to national union leaders in Washington said last Friday that Wisconsin, Indiana, Ohio and Michigan will be where unions set up the front lines of their counter offensive. The goal will be to sweep out GOP tea party governors and lawmakers in all those states.
They are confident they can succeed because they have already built what they describe as an "infrastructure" enabling them to exercise labor's "political muscle." About 14 months ago unions began sending staff into and setting up permanent union-controlled operations in states like Pennsylvania, Florida, Nevada, Wisconsin, Ohio and Michigan.
Richard Trumka, president of the AFL-CIO, has said, "It's not like the old days when all we did was hand out money to a candidate and them leave everything up to them." These days, unions are sending in people, recruiting people, building permanent phone banks in their facilities and forging working alliances with people outside of the labor movement. The alliances, with groups ranging from immigrant rights activists to voting rights campaigners, are alliances based on issues.
The new approach, union leaders say, allows them, even after a long political campaign like the fight to re-elect President Obama in 2012, to quickly pivot to a campaign on an issue important to labor. They point to their successful effort in Ohio last year to overturn a GOP law that destroyed collective bargaining rights.
Even where the right-to-work law was just pushed through here in Michigan, unions had a victory four weeks ago when voters overturned the state's draconian Emergency Management Law. It was the labor movement that led the effort to overturn that law which was also opposed by a broad array of groups that saw the law as enabling state Republicans to take over local governments on the pretext that the locals couldn't manage their finances.
"We're preparing to fight back like never before," said Lee Saunders, president of the American Federation of State County and Municipal Employees. His union was among the first to come under assault from the new crop of tea party governors that took over in 2010 when Wisconsin's Scott Walker rammed through a bill to kill the collective bargaining rights of public workers.
Saunders said it will be more than just Wisconsin his union will be looking at as it mounts its counter offensive and that unions will take nothing for granted, even in states carried this year by President Obama. "Look at Ohio (which President Obama carried), where you have a Republican governor and Republican control in the Senate and the House, and then look at Wisconsin where you have the same. We are preparing in all these places and it's not just going to be the unions. We're going to work very hard with our community partners. It's going to be a long term battle."
Working with "community partners" is a theme being pushed by union leadership on all levels.
"We say 2014 is absolutely crucial," said AFL-CIO political director Michael Podhorzer. He said Snyder and other Midwest governors "aren't even listening to the results of the (2012) election. They have an agenda to not just destroy unions, but many of them go after immigrants. All of them go after voting rights. And giving them another four year term is going to be horrific for the workers and citizens in those states."
And, unions say, they aren't waiting for 2014 to get started. In Michigan itself unions still have open the option of going for a ballot initiative to overturn the "right-to-work" law just passed. If they succeed they would have a win under their belts even before the 2014 midterms.
In addition to stepped-up electoral activity and reaching outside the labor movement for support, unions are saying they will work to increase their organizing activity.
Mary Kay Henry, president of the huge Service Employees International Union, said she expects they will be mounting a "reinvigorated, bigger-than-ever push to expand our membership and to spread the word about how unions are essential to building a strong middle class. The low wage service jobs we see all over the place must become good-paying family sustaining jobs," she said.
Photo: Day of action in Lansing. Working Michigan Facebook