By Dustin Hurst | Watchdog.org
LANSING, Mich. — Lend an ear to union disciples for a few moments and you might come to believe that this week’s right-to-work tangle came out of thin air, a broadside attack on the working class.
“On Thursday, the bill just came out of nowhere,” Susan Seitz, a 56-year-old retired auto worker and Democrat, told the Washington Post Tuesday.
That’s the narrative union bosses would have you buy — organized labor was simply minding its own business, harmlessly twiddling its thumbs on the sidelines when the nasty, bought-and-paid-for Republicans swooped in to attack labor unions.
An ambush, they call it.
That would offer a wholly incomplete accounting of events, though. In fact, labor unions played a starring role in this whole chain of proceedings.
When Republican Gov. Rick Synder took office about two years ago, he offered a pragmatic approach — a path forward for a more fiscally responsible Michigan. He sought to bring groups together, find common ground and move forward in conducting the peoples’ work.
When it came to unions, he adopted a “live and let live” mantra, telling the news media that he simply wasn’t interested in pushing for right-to-work laws. At times, the governor appeared to appease his party’s right-wing a little more than pundits thought prudent, but he never dipped into hard tactics to advance anti-labor policies.
Labor unions, meanwhile, took blow after blow at the hands of eager and fiscally minded Republicans nationwide, but primarily here in the nation’s rust belt.
First Wisconsin, where GOP Gov. Scott Walker and the Republican-controlled Legislature fought for and eventually won curbs to union collective bargaining privileges for most public employees. Unions fought tooth and nail to stop the legislation, but the Republicans punched them right in the gut and passed the law anyway.
Next, conservatives took the war to Indiana. In February, outgoing Republican Gov. Mitch Daniels, who once similarly expressed on interest in pushing right-to-work, made the Hoosier State the23rd state to adopt such policies. Tally another loss for big labor.
Back in Wisconsin, union devotees were furious. They launched a recall bid against Walker and a handful of state lawmakers. Desperate for public support, the organized left called in the Big Dog, Bill Clinton, to rally the troops and inspire the faithful.
They called on President Barack Obama, too, but he declined, instead deciding that a single tweet would suffice.
On June 5, the Walker recall failed, adding yet another tick to the labor loss column.
During the re-grouping and wound-licking, union bosses needed another strategy to thwart future defeats and re-energize the labor-backers.
It was time to play offense and Michigan would serve as ground zero.
Where else would be quite as appropriate? The state touts the highest worker-unionization rate nationally, and it’s the birthplace of the United Autoworkers Union, once among the most powerful labor unions in the country.
Michigan, labor leaders presumed, was ripe for a strike back against the empire, a re-birth of sorts.
Union officials hatched a tactical game plan: They sought a constitutional amendment that would enshrine union rights above state code. The far-reaching measure would have allowed unions to “challenge any law — past, present, or future — limiting their benefits and powers.”
Here’s how the Huffington Post described the power grab play:
Now, after a series of setbacks at the hands of Republican governors and legislatures, labor is attempting a bold gambit in hopes of regaining some momentum: a first-of-its-kind ballot initiative in the Nov. 6 election that would put collective bargaining rights in the Michigan constitution – and out of lawmakers’ reach.
The organized left raised and spent more than $20 million pushing the amendment. They couched their argument under the guise of helping the middle-class and average families.
In a somewhat stunning repudiation of the union agenda, Michiganders soundly defeated the amendment 58 percent to 42 percent, a 16 percent margin of defeat. Obama’s easy stroll through Michigan — he captured 53 percent of the vote — amplified the union’s failure.
How could Michiganders support Obama, the man big labor spent $400 million supporting this year, and not the constitutional amendment?
The rout emboldened Michigan Republicans. They had to pre-empt another try at a constitutional amendment and flex the GOP muscle. They needed to send a lasting message.
On Thursday, they began that effort, passing two right-to-work bills in the Senate. The House passed the measures Tuesday and sent them to Snyder, who quickly signed them into law, further enraging labor-lovers.
Unions fired the first shot in this never-ending battle between the left and right, but it won’t be their last. At a short rally Tuesday afternoon, labor leaders promised to make Republicans pay at the polls in November 2014.
Michigan AFL-CIO president Karla Swift hinted that the left will forego an expensive recall challenge in order to focus on bringing the heat to the general election ballot boxes.
The battle will forever rage on, but don’t be surprised if Republicans win again in 2014 and take another swipe at organized labor.
Then, like now, unions will be completely unable to feign blameless and purity in this ongoing ruckus.
Contact: [email protected] or @DustinHurst on Twitter.
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