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WI: Is Lansing the next Madison on the state v. labor war front?

By   /   December 10, 2012  /   No Comments

Part 7 of 9 in the series Right to Work

By M.D. Kittle/ Wisconsin Reporter

MADISON –  On Monday afternoon, a Milwaukee-based bus loaded with union members headed for Lansing, Mich., was destined for what some say is another battle in the political war that began in Wisconsin nearly two years ago.

The bus, sponsored by the Wisconsin AFL-CIO and the Service Employees International Union, embarked on the six-hour trip, ready to help pack the Michigan Capitol Tuesday morning for a rally against passage of the state’s contentious right-to-work bill.

Protesters gather in Lansing hoping to stop Michigan’s right-to-work bill from becoming law.

For the union members, it’s a matter of returning the favor.

“Our Michigan brothers and sisters were here for us during our fight here in Wisconsin; now we need to return the favor and show our support and solidarity,” stated a joint press release from the labor organizations.

Unions from all over the U.S. descended on Madison in late winter 2011, making up many of the tens of thousands of demonstrators who protested against Act 10.  Led by Republican Gov. Scott Walker and a GOP-led Legislature, the bill, now law, effectively gutted public-sector union powers, requiring most public employees to contribute to their pensions, and holding bargaining to wages capped at the rate of inflation.

It’s a similar story in Michigan. There a Republican-controlled Legislature and a Republican governor – who previously declared he would discourage movement of a right-to-work law – are on the verge of stamping into law a major legislative setback for organized labor. Gov. Rick Snyder could sign the bill, approved on a fast track by Michigan’s House and Senate, as early as Tuesday.

Meanwhile, the forces of discontent gather at the Lansing Capitol building. Some see it as Wisconsin 2011 all over again.

“I do think people in Michigan are watching Wisconsin and trying to learn from the Wisconsin model, and it will be interesting to see what lessons they have learned,” said Joe Heim, political science professor at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse.

Of course, Michigan’s labor battle is broader. The state would join 23 other right-to-work states, giving any employee in a unionized workplace the right to refuse to join the union or pay union dues.

“It’s great news for employees in Michigan,” Patrick Semmens, spokesman for the National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation, a nonprofit with a mission to “eliminate coercive union power and compulsory unionism abuses through strategic litigation, public information, and education programs.”

“If the governor signs the bill (Tuesday), which he says he will do, employees will not be forced into a union and paying dues as a condition of keeping a job,” Semmens added.

President Obama, at a Michigan engine plant Monday to push his “fiscal cliff” plan, received rousing applause when he declared that states shouldn’t be “taking away your rights to bargain for better wages and working conditions.”

The president said right-to-work bills are more about “giving you the right to work for less money.”

Michigan’s unions, while diminished, still pack a lot of political muscle in the home of the United Auto Workers.

Activists are talking about the R-word – recall – although Snyder is up for reelection in less than two years.

They might want to take a close look at the Wisconsin story, where organized labor and Democrats pushed a failed recall effort against Walker, who became the first governor in U.S. history to survive a recall election – and by a 7-point margin.

Semmens and other right-to-work watchers say organized labor may not have the gift of time that Democrats gave Wisconsin demonstrators. Fourteen Senate Democrats fled the state to stave off a vote on Act 10, allowing the protest movement to build, eventually garnering international media attention.

“Hopefully this won’t be drawn out quite as long,” Semmens said.

Karen Hickey of Wisconsin AFL-CIO did not return a Wisconsin Reporter request for comment. And several union leaders from Michigan’s UAW, AFL-CIO and SEIU could not be reached for comment, many of their voicemail messages stating business hours were between 8 a.m. and 4 p.m.

With Snyder’s change of heart on right-to-work, the question turns to Walker. The governor has told Wisconsin Reporter he is not interested in pursuing right-to-work.

But Heim said he’s not convinced Walker would turn a bill away if it landed on his desk.

The political science professor said he believes Walker’s recall battles would give the governor pause, however.

“You cannot come away from recall feeling the same way as you did before. You’re going to have scars,” he said. “You have to ask yourself, ‘Was it worth it?’ I don’t know if he’s up for that kind of battle.”

Contact Kittle at mkittle@wisconsinreporter.com

Part of 9 in the series Right to Work

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M.D. Kittle is national First Amendment reporter at Watchdog.org. Contact him at mkittle@watchdog.org.

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