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Commentary: A conversation about right-to-work


I suppose if I were a Martian in Michigan this week, I’d be a bit baffled about what we think is news, and why.

Actually, forget the Martian part. Frankly, I can’t figure out the thinking of the mainstream media, and I’ve been part of it since the 1970’s. Today, for example, the Detroit papers are devoting a lot of space to the auto show, which I understand. They also seem very excited that the National Hockey League strike is over, which I sort of understand.

There is also a story about the latest rumor that Jimmy Hoffa is buried somewhere, which is entirely inappropriate. We are only supposed to have one of these a year. We already dug up someone’s driveway last summer, and whoever is spreading the latest yarn needs to wait till August.

There’s a story about two brothers who stole their father’s corpse, so they could resurrect him through prayer. And, a new investigation revealing that Natalie Wood, the actress who fell off a boat and drowned 32 years ago, actually fell off a boat and drowned. I am sure that’s been on the mind of a lot of unemployed Michiganders trying to make ends meet. However, there is evidence that some of us are thinking about real things.

Last night I moderated one of the “Issues and Ale” series Michigan Radio has been holding around the state. This one was in a brewery in Ypsilanti, and the subject was the recently passed right to work bill. This was on a cold and dark Tuesday night in January, not a time calculated to draw people out to talk about issues.

Yet the place was packed. Well over 100 people crowded around the stage, and there was standing room only. This crowd was emotional, well informed and passionate, though most were courteous to the panelists. Our non-scientific survey showed they opposed right to work by roughly nine to one.

Nobody, in fact, asked a question that indicated support for the legislation, though one woman, who is a welder, said she thought the entire issue was a diversion. What we really need to be doing, she said, was improving education, that while she didn’t support getting rid of the union shop, right-to-work may not mean that much for our economy. Interestingly, Kristen Dziczek, an expert on labor and industry issues in the auto industry, indicated that might be right.

Most of the audience were very angry, however, and felt they had been unfairly robbed of the chance to bargain effectively for better wages and conditions. And they felt lied to and betrayed by Governor Rick Snyder.

One of the panelists, Vince Vernuccio of the quasi-libertarian Mackinac Center, is a passionate supporter of right to work, and I wondered how he would be treated. But I’m proud to say that while some of the questions were heated, nobody was inappropriate.

It is too soon to tell how all this will play out, but two things seem clear.People are passionate about issues they see as affecting them, whatever the mainstream media may think. And if he runs for reelection, Snyder is going to face a harder and bitter challenge than he otherwise might have. This story is not about to go away.

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