Anyone who questions why the Republican Party is increasingly viewed with disdain by progressive Americans need only look to the recent labor events in the state of Michigan.
The Republican-controlled Legislature voted to enact sweeping changes to the way labor unions will be able to operate. Specifically, the measure significantly reduced the power of unions in a state that has been a national symbol of labor strength.
The new law, which restricts unions from compelling workers to pay dues, was voted upon by the Legislature and signed into law by the state’s Republican governor, Rick Snyder, at a speed that defies reason–let alone the concept of holding a broad and democratic set of hearings.
What is galling about this development is not just the passage of the law itself, but the manner in which the Republicans undertook this sad chapter in American labor history. Rather than go through the process of opening the state Capitol to a series of hearings and public discussion about the potential impact of the legislation, the Republicans approved the measure in little more than one day–a stunningly unprecedented speed.
When union members and others gathered at the Capitol in Lansing to protest the action, the Republican leadership summoned police to shut off the building to outsiders, saying they risked violating the safety code regulations. Essentially, it was rammed through the Legislature, with police protection, in a lame duck session of the Legislature, in a lightning-speed, cloak-and-dagger shroud.
Snyder, who courted moderate-leaning Republican and Democratic voters when he ran in 2010 by telling Michiganders that he was not comfortable with such anti-labor measures, reversed himself and signed the bill at almost the second it was shuttled to his desk.
Of course, the Republicans have masked their anti-union activity in the mantle of economic development, saying that more companies will be lured to the state–and enabled to prosper–by the decline of union muscle. The rights of workers to refrain from being members of labor unions should be championed by law, the Republicans shamelessly insist.
But President Barack Obama was correct when, speaking at a rally in Michigan, he said the actions had everything to do with politics. “These so-called ‘right-to-work’ laws, they don’t have to do with economics, they have everything to do with politics,” he said. “What they’re really talking about is giving you the right to work for less money.”
In an age where billionaires can spend freely in political campaigns, labor unions have been the most reliable source of campaign spending–and foot soldiers–for Democratic and progressive political campaigns. What’s more, in recent decades, labor unions have been the protectors of job security for large numbers of African-American workers throughout the country. At the same time, labor unions have been the springboard for the careers of a large number of African-American and women executives.
The Republicans’ notion that such measures lead to higher earnings for workers is simply not borne out by the facts. Studies, such as one by the University of Notre Dame, have made clear that states with laws that discourage dues payment have higher rates of poverty and far worse records for health care coverage.
What is needed going forward is for organized labor and progressive-leaning groups around the country to coalesce around defeating incumbent Republican governors like Snyder in 2014. It would be a fitting end to a career now highlighted by hypocrisy and a clear signal that labor’s force is still to be reckoned with.