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The plight of unions

Jack Lessenberry

If you’ve been following the news for a long time, sometimes the biggest indicator of how things have changed is not the stories themselves, but how they are treated.

There is a story today buried in the back pages of the Detroit papers and not even mentioned on most radio news broadcasts, a story that once would have been on the front page of every paper in this state. It said that Ron Bieber, the son of former United Auto Workers President Owen Bieber, had been elected president of the state AFL-CIO.

The AFL is still the largest labor federation in the country, and for many years was both an economic and political powerhouse, both nationally and especially in Michigan. It was once virtually impossible for a Democrat to be nominated for governor or U.S. Senator here without strong support from labor. Yet labor has fallen on hard times, and what’s happened in Michigan has been perhaps most shocking of all.

A decade ago, nobody thought they’d ever live to see this become a right-to-work state, but we have, after a political coup by the legislature in a lame-duck session two and a half years ago. What may have been most surprising is how little backlash there has been since. Nobody has mounted a serious effort to try and repeal right to work.

The Democratic candidate for governor last year denounced it, but in fairly muted terms, since he knew that even if he won, he would be powerless to get the legislature to do anything about it. In the end, Democrats lost, and union membership keeps slipping.

Last year alone, union membership in Michigan declined from more than sixteen percent of the workforce to barely fourteen and a half percent. That decline is likely to accelerate as contracts negotiated before right-to-work was passed continue to expire.

Right to work means, of course, that workers can no longer be compelled to join or pay dues to a union in any plant or industry. Union membership had already been on the decline for years, as companies increasingly outsourced work or preferred to deal with independent contractors, many of whom worked off site and were extremely hard to organize.

I think the most thoughtful leader of the state AFL in recent years was Mark Gaffney, a member of the Teamsters Union who also had a masters’ degree in labor relations.

But he was ousted four years ago after the UAW, the federation’s strongest component, decided it wanted their own Karla Swift instead. Her term, however, was one of virtually unmitigated disaster for Michigan unions. They spent heavily three years ago on a referendum to try and get collective bargaining rights enshrined in the state constitution.

They lost badly, and lawmakers instantly retaliated with right to work. Now, anti-union forces are making a major effort to end prevailing wage rates on state construction jobs.

Ron Bieber, whose father led the state UAW for a dozen years, has his work cut out for him. It's fashionable to beat up on unions these days. But there are still some old timers who remember what life was like for the average man before they came.

You might want to do some research and look into that.

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio's political analyst. Views expressed in his essays are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.

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