GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. — Auto parts maker Lear Corp. shipped its plant from here to Mexico, laying off hundreds of workers. Robin Golden, president of UAW Local 2344 and one of the laid-off workers, spoke about it at the Democratic National Convention in August.
“I believed if I worked hard and did a good job, I’d have my job until I retired,” he said. Pointing a finger at John McCain, who has repeatedly voted for tax breaks for companies to move jobs out of the U.S., Golden said, “It’s time for a change.”
“Michigan is the key to the whole [electoral] map,” a pollster recently told Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne. Its 17 electoral votes are one reason, but the anger of the state’s working class over Bush’s policies, backed by McCain, that have cost them jobs and a decent standard of living is far more telling.
While the national unemployment rate rose in August to a five-year high of 6.1 percent, the jobless rate in Michigan was more than 2 points higher — 8.9 percent. Four of the state’s largest cities — Detroit, Grand Rapids, Saginaw and Flint — ranked near the top of the list of U.S. cities with high unemployment.
One person in Michigan who benefited from the policies McCain has backed was billionaire Amway co-owner Dick DeVos, a former Michigan Republican gubernatorial candidate. When it was revealed that as Amway CEO he had used federal tax loopholes to help pay for moving production facilities out of the country, costing Michigan as many as 1,300 jobs, his campaign crumbled.
Michigan has lost more than 60,000 jobs due to NAFTA, the North American Free Trade Agreement, according to the Economic Policy Institute. Those jobs, EPI estimated, were typically manufacturing jobs that would have paid an average of $800 per week.
McCain, a supporter of unfettered “free trade,” told one Michigan audience during the primary season that “NAFTA was a good idea.”
“Free trade,” he said, “is vital to the future of America. Have people lost jobs? Yes, they have, and they’re gonna lose jobs.”
McCain and fellow congressional Republicans blocked efforts to expand unemployment benefits and to expand the State Children’s Health Insurance Program to cover an additional tens of thousands of children of Michigan working families.
Meanwhile, Michigan Republicans, who control the state Senate, have blocked efforts to amend the state’s “flat tax” to increase revenues for public schools. Over the past year, schools across the state saw state funding drop by about $400 per pupil.
Dozens of schools in Detroit have closed, while cutbacks around the state have caused children go without art, music and some foreign language classes and other programs.
Grand Rapids teachers are in their second year without a contract. Last year, the school system was forced to cut $2 million from its budget.
The city of Ypsilanti earlier this year was forced to close part of its police force and share public safety duty with the Washtenaw County sheriff’s office as a result of budget shortages. Highland Park, an impoverished city surrounded by Detroit, has gone without a fire department for several years.
So far the economic crisis appears to have led the state’s voters to agree with UAW local leader Robin Given: it is time for change. The most recent poll shows Obama with a 9-point advantage. At least two suburban Republican-held House seats are up for grabs.
Michigan Republicans are nervous. One local Republican official said his group planned to use a list of home foreclosures, obtained through a foreclosure specialist who has donated at least $100,000 to the McCain campaign, to challenge voters in Detroit on Election Day. The publicity led to a lawsuit by the Obama campaign and state Democrats calling for an injunction against use of such a list.
Republican operatives are training loyalists on how to challenge voters at polling places. They plan to use the state’s draconian voter ID law that requires a state identification card in order to cast a ballot. The state itself estimates that 370,000 eligible voters will be excluded by the law.
Michigan’s Republican Secretary of State Terri Lynn Land, co-chair of the 2004 Bush-Cheney campaign, told poll watchers they can even demand that a voter produce a second piece of photo ID if they don’t think the ID photo looks enough like the voter, according to Common Cause.
The American Civil Liberties Union in Michigan has filed a lawsuit challenging the state’s voter ID laws and has circulated a voter rights flier.
The state AFL-CIO is campaigning to educate its 1.4 million members about their voting rights and mobilize them to vote Nov. 4.
In a statement urging members to get involved, state AFL-CIO President Mark Gaffney said, “Here in Michigan we have been battered by the Bush/McCain policy of rewarding companies that ship jobs overseas and providing tax cuts for the wealthy while working families struggle to pay their bills and put gas in their car.” Labor activists say every one of those voters will be needed to ensure a victory for Barack Obama.