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Towards More Perfect Unions: Michigan Labor and the 2012 Election

Not only the US Presidency, but state ballot initiatives have consequences for labor.

by Mike Mosher

1. Old Blue-Collar Michigan

When I was a kid, the Detroit News ran a photo spread where their staff artist (pre-Photoshop) visualized what local celebrities would look like with Beatle haircuts, for that cheerful British band had just toured the US and helped us forget about the Presidential assassination the autumn before. One of the celebrities was Walter Reuther, the head of the United Autoworkers Union, for he was considered as powerful as manufacturing CEO Henry Ford II or Governor George Romney. A 2012 documentary on Reuther, and his brothers Victor and Roy, has been directed and co-produced by Victor's grandson Sasha Reuther. While Reuther's UAW presidency supported Dr. King civil rights marches and Cesar Chavez's farmworkers, black workers felt underrepresented, the union never came out against the Vietnam War (at US President Lyndon B. Johnson's request) and Communist Party members were expelled from leadership roles.

Unions were part of the culture of my generation's Michigan. In 1972's "Rip This Joint", the Rolling Stones sang, "Gonna raise hell in the union hall...". Commander Cody sang, "He's all caught up on his union dues" in Andy Razaf's "That's What I Like About the South", and it was a while before I realized that he was saying there pretty much weren't unions in the south. That fact was more recently drummed home by the Toyota Republicans of 2009, Southern Senators who cackled with schadenfreude over the impending bankruptcy of General Motors and Chrysler, both unionized concerns based in my northern state. This publication has noted the minimal, perhaps largely symbolic, 2009 UAW strike actions.

Certainly the past decade has been problematic in the blue collar rustbelt. In a characteristic example, in 2001 Asimico Technologies, auto parts manufacturer in eastern China, bought two camshaft factories in Michigan employing about 500 people. In 2007 both were shut down. Bain Capital has large stakes in Asimico and at least seven other Chinese businesses, and Mitt Romney has $2.25 million invested in those funds, reported the New York Times on October 10, 2012. In an optimistic note from the north, this Fall the Canadian Auto Workers union ratified a four-year contract for Chrysler's 8,000 workers in Ontario. The union represents 21,000 auto workers in Canada, about 16% of auto workers in North America. The UAW in the US agreed to two-tiered wage agreements five years ago.

In China, patriotic rage over Japanese possession of two uninhabited islands China claims caused riots that overturned Japanese cars, but the top selling brands in China are GM, VW and Huyundai. Yet one could argue that cars themselves are losing cultural relevance in the US, for youth are not as interested in owning a car as previous generations. In 2008, 46.3% potential drivers age 19 and younger had drivers licenses, compared to 64.4% in 1998, according to the Federal Highway Administration.

2. Hot for Teacher

Beyond the auto industry, not only the US Presidency, but state ballot initiatives this year have major consequences for labor. Contrary to old Marxist teaching, the urban factory proletariat aren't the vanguard of labor (and, thus, social) struggle in our time, but public employees...whose attractive public face is that of schoolteachers.

The protests against Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker's union-busting were well documented, yet Walker survived the recall attempt organized against him and holds on to his office. In January, 2012 the effort to make Indiana a right-to-work state saw some Teamsters considering targeting the Super Bowl XVVI in protest. The Chicago Teacher's Strike in September affected 350,000 students, pitting union leader Karen Lewis against Democratic Mayor Rahm Emanuel in a struggle over working conditions, how teachers were granted tenure, promoted or fired, and the use of standardized student tests to determine teachers' standing. Emanuel is also partial to charter schools, which don't hire unionized teachers.

On May 29, 2012, posted "Michigan May Be Next Battleground for Anti-Union Forces", for Republican Governor Rick Snyder's Emergency Manager Law (Public Act 4) allows the Governor to supersede all contracts, agreements and policies reached by elected officials. According to Steve Friess in, 203,000 signatures were gathered for a ballot measure to repeal the law, but it was challenged by the State Board of Canvassers because the font size may have been incorrect. Proposal 1 appears on the Michigan ballot, though worded so a Yes vote supports the Emergency Manager.

As summer, 2012, the cities of Flint, Pontiac, Ecorse and Benton Harbor and the school districts of Detroit, Highland Park and Muskegon Heights have been placed under indefinite emergency management. Thirty cities and twice that many school districts now operate with deficits, thus making them eligible for state takeover. Much of Public Act 4 was first suggested by the right-wing think tank the Mackinac Center of Midland, MI, funded by the Koch Bros. and DeVos Family foundations, especially empowering the emergency manager to set aside union contracts. One also notes that cities thus far taken over are all predominantly black; more than half of Michigan's black residents are currently living under an emergency manager or serious threat of one. Detroit NAACP president Wendell Anthony said: "We have the right as Americans to have duly elected leadership work out these issues. We should not be subject to ending democracy in our city and state simply because of an economic downturn."

While Proposal 1 on the ballot lets voters decide if Emergency Managers can be appointed or not, Proposal 2 guarantees all--including public--employees' collective bargaining rights in the State Constitution. The Republican-dominated state legislature had passed laws threatening public employee rights, and more were to come. Proposal 2, put on the Michigan state ballot for the November 2012 election by a labor coalition called Protect Working Families, would add a new Section 28 to Article I of the State Constitution, as follows:


The people shall have the rights to organize together to form, join or assist labor organizations, and to bargain collectively with a public or private employer through an exclusive representative of the employees' choosing, to the fullest extent not preempted by the laws of the United States.
As used in subsection (1), to bargain collectively is to perform the mutual obligation of the employer and the exclusive representative of the employees to negotiate in good faith regarding wages, hours, and other terms and conditions of employment and to execute and comply with any agreement reached; but this obligation does not compel either party to agree to a proposal or make a concession.
No existing or future law of the State or its political subdivisions shall abridge, impair or limit the foregoing rights; provided that the State may prohibit or restrict strikes by employees of the State and its political subdivisions. The legislature's exercise of its power to enact laws relative to the hours and conditions of employment shall not abridge, impair or limit the right to collectively bargain for wages, hours and other terms and conditions of employment that exceed minimum levels established by the legislature.
No existing or future law of the State or its political subdivisions shall impair, restrict or limit the negotiation and enforcement of any collectively bargained agreement with a public or private employer respecting financial support by employees of their collective bargaining representative according to the terms of that agreement.
For purposes of this Section, "employee" means a person who works for any employer for compensation, and "employer" means a person or entity employing one or more employees.
This section and each part thereof shall be self-executing. If any part of this section is found to be in conflict with or preempted by the United States Constitution or federal law, such part shall be severable from the remainder of this section, and such part and the remainder of this section shall be effective to the fullest extent that the United States Constitution and federal law permit.

The proposal would also add the following 5th paragraph to Article XI, Section:

Classified state civil service employees shall, through their exclusive representative, have the right to bargain collectively with their employer concerning conditions of their employment, compensation, hours, working conditions, retirement, pensions, and other aspects of employment except promotions, which will be determined by competitive examination and performance on the basis of merit, efficiency and fitness.

Protect Working Families includes the AFL-CIO and the Michigan Education Association. Lined up against Prop 2 are the Associated Builders and Contractors of Michigan, Detroit Regional Chamber of Commerce, Michigan Manufacturers Association, and associations of Realtors, School Administrators and Sheriffs. Their website Protecting Michigan Taxpayers published the Bay City Schools' contract with the Bay City Teachers' Association as if it was something heinous; looks pretty good, methodical, just and thorough to me.

3. And to Your Left, Occupy

The state ballot proposals are also tied to the simmering Occupy movement in Michigan. Occupy Detroit was given a 12,000 square foot building at 5900 Michigan Avenue by Marc Hesse of Detroit Cornice and Slate, a family roofing company. He was inspired to give the building since billionaire Matty Maroun decimated the Delray neighborhood under his Ambassador Bridge, and financed state ballot Proposal 6 against the building of a second bridge.

California filmmaker Craig Baldwin gave a shout out to Occupy Detroit and Occupy Flint when he spoke at the University of Michigan in March, kicking off the 50th Ann Arbor Film Festival. In Fall, 2011 Occupy Flint maintained an encampment around Martin Luther King Avenue and 2nd Avenue in downtown Flint.

Flint's Broadside published Occupied Issue 18 "with a donation from the Evil Eye Institute of Greater Flint", and write how broadsides were a means of cheaply publishing song lyrics from the 16th through early 20th centuries. Former Mayor Michael Brown was appointed Flint's Emergency Manager on November 29, 2011, with a mandate to eliminate the city's deficit and unfunded pension mandates in two years. Among writer Connor Coyne's suggestions for protesting "Flint's Illegal Occupation" by this Emergency Manager is to occupy City Hall, "Get 100 friends. Chain yourself to the doors of City Hall. Repeat weekly. Given the number of police, it'll be hours before the EM can get to his office...then he'll realize we need more police (to cut the chains) and hire 50 or 60 cops." Coyne's further suggestions are to "respond to cuts in public safety with a couple hundred Chevys on the lawn at City Hall blasting Grand Funk and Stevie Wonder unendingly." He also urges citizens "fax pictures of your butt to Governor Rick Snyder (517) 335-6863; make sure to write 'Love, Flint' on your butt before sending."

An hour north of Flint, Rev. Jeff Liebmann co-ordinates the Saginaw-based Occupy the Tri to incite Bay City and Midland to action as well. A mailing in May discussed the Protect our Jobs initiative, as well as supporting Rev. Edward Pinkney's Occupy the PGA in Benton Harbor.

4. New Michigan

In 2000, when I moved to the Great Lakes Bay Region (the crook in the mitten between Michigan's fingers and thumb, Saginaw Bay and the watershed of the Saginaw River), I was pleased to hear the blue-collar region was largely unionized. Not far from a large Teamsters' union headquarters I saw signs that a Wal-Mart was soon to be built. I thought ho ho, no way they'll allow those union-busters to move in, they'll be torching trucks and punching out scab labor. Construction unions will refuse to work, and protest in solidarity. Or so I thought. The Wal-Mart went up, and soon the Teamsters' hall was vacant, with a realtor's sign and phone number.

Soon after, I heard a Classic Rock radio station promo using a comic voice of a "card-carrying UAW member" that sounded like a hillbilly hick, with an accent from below the Mason-Dixon line. My Bay City neighbors graduated high school and went to work, in factories or for small businesses, options that contracted just as they were in middle age. I watch my edgy neighbors in the era of the broken social contract, chat over the fence with a small business owner who had to sell the business in order to pay her husband's medical bills, and he casually mentions a hospital debt over a hundred thousand dollars. I suspect there's anger, envy, and disappointment that the professor with the biggest house on the block is not hiring lawn care.

Yet in Michigan, and much of America, it appears evangelistic churches have replaced unions, and commit to stand firmly against women's abortion choice and gay marriages, no matter what the employer takes away from you. Experts and pundits have discussed the factors leading to decline in union membership, from an atomized society with fewer social organizations (the "bowling alone" thesis), to television watching and now Facebook and the splendors-at-your-fingertips of the Web.

A favorite thoughtful Facebook read is a local African American Republican in the construction industry, as much for his commentators and critics, both Democratic and Republican, as his own observations. His anti-unionism, however misplaced, is rooted in his own experience with racist unions and the local Democratic machine that supported them (and generally takes black votes for granted), and faith in black entrepreneurial spirit. Fifty years ago his businesswoman grandmother supported Governor George Romney, supporter of civil rights and opponent of the Vietnam war. Director of an association of contractors, he rails against the unions for their many years of smug exclusion of black people, though every union to which I've belonged has been diverse, with all local populations well-represented, including some black officers. Of course he's against Prop 2, and supports Governor Snyder's Emergency Managers.

As of mid-2011, Michigan's current Republican Governor Rick Snyder hadn't avowedly considered constraints on public-sector unions his fight, and steered clear of voicing support for Scott Walker, though members of the state legislature in his party have, and he signed the bills they passed. Those bills, plus his Emergency Manager law, mobilized organized labor and Democratic Party opposition. The Right's strategy seems to be, if the public sector unionized and a progressive force in society, then diminish and de-fund the public sector.

5. Card-Carrying Bad Subject

While historically-informed can argue about the 20th century, it's pretty clear that the most oppressive collective form, certainly in the US, in the 21st century is the corporation. The 2011 Citizens United decision gave corporations more power to influence without avowed responsibility.

As an adult, working for a living, I've always liked unions. In 1980, when I was hired as a CETA Muralist Trainee assigned to the San Francisco Art Commission, all new CETA-funded hires were given an afternoon-long orientation. Since I'd graduated from a prestigious college back east, I could tell that the orientation's skeptical administrator didn't think the federal jobs-training program was intended to be helping me. One feature of the orientation was a pitch by a red-faced Irishman in his 60s employed as an organizer for the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), whose San Francisco chapter was then headed by John Sweeney, later AFL-CIO President. I was the only one in the room who signed up; "A credit union, that's what I need" said a young black woman seated beside me. Later in the decade, and through the 1990s, there was no union in at my Silicon Valley jobs though I would have joined.

Two decades ago a History professor organized our faculty association, affiliated with the Michigan Educational Association. It has effectively negotiated effective evaluation and promotion processes, workplace protection and due process, and payroll raises, for which I am grateful. It is to our advantage that many top administrators are former faculty here, and haven't forgotten the classroom, where the rubber meets the road. The faculty are a significant part of university governance, and I served as an at-large Board member for 2003 to 2005. Yet I also rail at its limitations. After a previous contract was negotiated, some people complained about perks given to families, seen at the expense of very angry and disturbed singles, but the officers failed to address these concerns in a heated meeting, only sitting glumly. I wish it had an online newsletter and discussion, as feisty as Bad Subjects at its frothiest, instead of disaffected faculty grumbling in the halls, but a group that five years ago expressed interest in the idea held numerous meetings but (except me) failed to contribute to it. Though it's downloadable as a PDF, I look forward to an online version of our contract, with links to contextualizing commentary: What does this point mean, exactly, why is it important, and what's its history in our contract?

Small incidents seem emblematic of poor communication with our academic rank and file. When 2007 negotiations were stalled, the Faculty Association made up t-shirts with a caption inquiring about respect, to be worn at the late August Back to School Picnic and University President's Address. Not only had concessions already been made by the faculty, but the action had an inadvertent symbolic meaning as well. That, in the comfort food midwest, the association printed up no XXL shirts, as required by about a dozen of us stout men and women on the faculty, or even a single XXXXL required by one lady, drummed home how sadly inattentive they were to their own constituency. However exploited and expendable we were, in my experience of the corporate world, the bosses always made sure we got the right-sized shirt.

While the Faculty Association couldn't suggest any rides to a 2011 rally in Lansing, it turned out our university's staff union was meeting up with buses of schoolteachers from my town (I'll ask its official next time I want to participate). I suppose my greatest fear is that our faculty union maintains no ties to other local labor organizations that would be beneficial in times of crisis. After witnessing a largely African American group of Teamsters join a striking hotel workers' march in Chicago in 2005, shaking signs and fists and audibly voicing their feelings about exploitation, I would hope for supportive Teamsters filling the university parking lots with semi trucks if our own negotiations with the administration ever deadlock.

And as labor questions are put to the electorate, I feel our error has been not, as labor intellectuals in solidarity, actively helping to organize other sectors of society. Economism has kept us content with our new contracts, assiduously doing our jobs and returning home to our families instead.

The fraudulent myth of "Free Trade" holds both Republicans and Democrats in thrall, and we must hold accountable those who voted for NAFTA two decades ago, including Democrats. The UN should define any closing of a factory employing 100 or more, to contract manufacturing across a national border instead, as Crime Against Community, and certainly trials should be held in Michigan and the industrial Midwestern United States. And perhaps the International Criminal Court in the Hague.

There's as much risk of organizing foreign lands as registering voters in the US deep south fifty years ago. A Bangladeshi organizer in the garment industry, in an area whose factories made clothes for American companies like Abercrombie and Tommy Hilfiger, was kidnapped and murdered. Yet only with unions, coordinated around the globe, can there be continued progress for all.

A Los Angeles friend, when asked by her brother the banker who she thought was going to win the Presidential election in November, replied, "Wall Street!" In talking about the mystery and alterity behind folk music's tales of murder, mayhem and lovers' suicides, Greil Marcus coined the phrase, in his book about Bob Dylan, "old weird America". If one doesn't watch FOX News, it may be difficult to understand the Republicans' New Weird America; like Obama, you might have been caught by surprise by the 2010 voter backlash. The crowds at the Democratic Convention looked like the America we know, a lot of average folks with ancestries from around the world, including Africa.

And the old Michigan, where there was an historical struggle, yet civil discourse, between Democrat and Republican, labor and capital?

This year I've been telling the story how George Romney made a Saturday morning campaign appearance during his 1964 Michigan Gubernatorial campaign, at the Kroger's grocery store where my parents shopped. My dad suggested this nine-year-old go up and shake the Governor's hand. Romney chuckled, said "Little boy, I hope you vote Republican when you grow up."

In October, there was a front page photo of Presidential candidate Mitt Romney greeting elementary school students in Fairfield, Virginia, his hand extended to shake their little hands. I'm charmed, sure. But, in light of the Republican Party's war against labor, part of me hopes these kids didn't shake.

Despite all the political contradictions and injustices swirling about us, Mike Mosher, Professor of Art/Communication & Digital Media at Saginaw Valley State University, stops and takes time to enjoy autumn in mid-Michigan.

Image © Bad Subjects archives.
Copyright © Mike Mosher. All rights reserved.