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Class War in Michigan

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Frank Hammer: GOP Governor and State legislature pass law weakening union rights.

Frank Hammer: GOP Governor and State legislature pass law weakening union rights.


PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay in Baltimore. And welcome to this week’s edition of The Hammer Report with Frank Hammer.

Frank is a longtime trade unionist. He’s also an adjunct faculty member in labor studies at the University of Indiana and Wayne State University, former president of the United Auto Workers local at the GM Powertrain plant in Warren, Michigan. Thanks for joining us, Frank.


JAY: So lots happening in Michigan. What are you going to start with?

HAMMER: Oh, we’re having an all-out assault on Michigan’s working class. We’re having an all-out assault on the urban centers in Michigan. We’re having an all-out assault on education. It’s a general—if there was ever talk about class warfare, we are seeing class warfare.

JAY: Alright. Well, start with the legislation that’s—may even be passed this week, if I understand it correctly.

HAMMER: It will likely be passed as soon as tomorrow, unless thousands and thousands and thousands of people are going to be in Lansing there to protest its passage. And I know that President Obama is at this moment speaking at a diesel plant.

JAY: Okay. Just to be clear on our days, we’re recording this on Monday, so when you say “tomorrow”, you mean Tuesday. But people are likely going to be watching this on Tuesday. So we’ll say today, ’cause—. Anyway, Tuesday is when the big protest is coming, and you think that it’s going to be [crosstalk]

HAMMER: Tomorrow, unionists will be turning out from all over the state, and their supporters, in Lansing tomorrow, because tomorrow is when it looks like the Senate, I think, will pass its version, or if they’ve already passed their versions, they will reconcile them and get them to the governor’s desk in a real—you’ve never seen government work so fast, actually.

JAY: So what’s—first of all, what is in this legislation that’s so objectionable?

HAMMER: The legislation will require employers to get rid of their contractual agreements that provide for required membership in the union at a particular business location, so that—it’s called the union security clause, and it stipulates that if you’re enjoying the benefits of union representation, that currently you’re obligated to be a member, and you’re obligated to pay at least that portion of your dues that pay for the representational services that your union provides. That is now—by the virtue of this law, is going to be declared voluntary, meaning that even though I may benefit from my union contracts and my union representation, that I don’t have to pay for it. I can—.

JAY: Well, isn’t there a counterargument to this, in this sense, is why shouldn’t unions be able to get voluntary contributions from members? And if they can’t, does it mean that the members are feeling that the unions aren’t doing a very good job?

HAMMER: Well, there’s definitely two sides to this coin. It used to be, once upon a time, that the representation in a plant, the representatives, the plant representatives, would actually have to go around and collect dues every month. That used to be our history. And as you can imagine, that’s very timestaking and so on. But the benefit of it was that it certainly kept the representatives close to the rank-and-file, and you had to be able to get that voluntary support.

And then it went to a system-of-dues check-off, which provided for the employer to automatically collect the dues and send them over to the union, so the union could continue to receive dues income without the necessity of going out and soliciting union dues on a routine basis. So the downside, of course, is that once you have this dues check-off, it’s inherent in that system to begin to take the membership for granted and their loyalties for granted. And various unions have done that to one extent or another. I’ve certainly seen it done in my own union. And sure enough, over the weekend on some of the talk shows you had UAW members on a talk show saying, you know, I think this is right because this gives us more control of the union and whether it represents us or not.

And of course the employers are exploiting that sentiment. But they don’t really care whether the union is really servicing the workers or not. They’re basically out to reduce its power, and this is the way they’re doing it. And they’re doing it drawing on the sentiments of workers who feel that the union leaderships more often than not take them for granted and don’t really make it a union of, by, and for the membership.

JAY: Now, how does it get to a situation where a state like Michigan, where—you know, almost the home of modern industrial unionism, that unions are so weak that they can’t resist this?

HAMMER: Well, we’re the—apparently, we’re the fifth-highest unionized state in the U.S., so yeah. And they’re saying, you know, if you can pass right-to-work in Michigan, then there’s no state that’s safe. I think that historically speaking—I can only speak, mostly, for the auto industry—that what once used to be a very muscular UAW that had 1.5 million members nationwide today has been reduced to less than 400,000. And unfortunately, the unions—my union still acts as if it’s 1.5 million members, but it’s actually 400,000. So the power is no longer there, and it has to—they’re faced with the task of rebuilding this power to slip through our hands. How has that slipped?

JAY: Well, no, let me ask, how is this legislation going to affect the autoworkers union?

HAMMER: Well, the way it’s going to work: first of all, if it’s passed, it will go into effect next March. The current contractual agreements are grandfathered, so that for autoworkers, for example, at the Big Three, our next agreement will be opened up in 2015. So for the next few years you will not see any effect at all. Other contracts (for example, at parts suppliers and so on) that expire between now and then, each time a contract expires, the new contract that takes its place will remove that feature of the union security clause. So it’ll be—you won’t see it overnight; it’ll be gradual. And in the case of the Big Three, we’ll see [incompr.] only having its impact in 2015.

JAY: And how much is this [incompr.] targeting public sector workers?

HAMMER: There’s legislation for both the private sector and for the public sector. The only unions that are exempted from this change are the firemen and women and the police. All of the—.

JAY: And in Wisconsin—. Sorry. Go ahead.

HAMMER: No, but all other unions are subject to it, whether in private sector or in the public sector.

JAY: Now, they tried to do that in Wisconsin, but the police union and the firemens’ union actually joined the protest and said, you know, you may be exempting us. We oppose all of this. What would have been the attitude of police and firemen unions in Michigan?

HAMMER: I’m sorry to say I’m not familiar with where their stand is right now. I don’t know.

JAY: Okay. Alright. Go on.

HAMMER: I would hope that they would follow their wonderful example in Wisconsin, both the police department’s and also of the fire union. The fireworkers union was fabulous.

JAY: Okay. So that’s what’s happening on the legislative front in terms of union shops. You were saying something’s happening at the level of cities and—when you were talking about class war in Michigan.

HAMMER: Correct. The election in November 6 had a number of resolutions and proposals. And, by the way, the proposal that preceded this move to right-to-work was Proposal 2, which had attempted—the union movement in Michigan tried to place in the Constitution permanent protections for collective bargaining rights. And that was defeated 57 percent to 42 percent.

JAY: So let’s just—just to be clear on this, this was a resolution that would have strengthened trade union rigths in Michigan, and it lost. And I read an interesting statistic that apparently more people voted against this resolution than voted for Obama in Michigan, that in other words a lot of Michigan voters that voted for Obama voted against this resolution to strengthen trade union rights.

HAMMER: Yeah. I think, if I remember, Flint and Detroit are the only locations where it was voted in support of. There are many theories about why it was rejected at the level that it was. Part of the theory holds that some of the no votes were actually people voting no on all of the proposals regardless.

But there are in fact—I mean, one of the problems that this highlights is that even within union households there was significant opposition to Proposal 2 and to the collective bargaining being permanently entrenched into the state constitution. So it didn’t have solid support within—even within union ranks.

JAY: And why do you think that is?

HAMMER: I think that partly it may have been viewed as an overreach by the unions, partly because maybe the notion of collective bargaining is so abstract to workers that they maybe did not understand quite how that works in our behalf, in our favor. So I think people will be getting to the bottom of that over this next few months, because I think that’s an alarming statistic, that not even—that barely a majority of union households supported it.

So to come back to the other question that you asked about the cities, in that same set of elections, in the proposals, there was also a proposal that won that overturned a particularly draconian law enabling the state government to impose emergency managers, emergency financial managers, over the cities that are in financial difficulty. What it turns out is that the cities in question now where this was imposed—and, by the way, this was also imposed on educational systems, but in—the cities that it was imposed on are all majority-black cities—Benton Harbor, Pontiac, Detroit (that is to give you three examples). And there was a tremendous effort, grassroots effort, to overturn the law that enabled the state government to do this. It was successful. And sure enough, within a matter of days, the legislature, which incidentally is totally controlled by the Republicans, including the governor’s office, including the Supreme Court, are now rewriting that law. And in the meantime the city of Detroit has been threatened that within 30 days we will be under an emergency manager, which here in the neighborhoods we’re calling emergency dictatorship law.

JAY: So in spite of this opposition, they’re just passing another piece of legislation to do it.

HAMMER: Correct [incompr.] defying the will of the people. And I just want to point out that none of this sounds very ordinary or normal to me. The state, in passing these right-to-work legislation (I’m going back to that), they did it within a day, and the customary hearings and debates and discussion is all thrown out the window. And there was such a stealth operation that attached to the legislation for the right to work is an appropriations section. And what they did by attaching an appropriations item onto the bill is it makes it—it shields it from being overturned into a public referendum. So not only are they saying, oh, you’re really going to like this, but we’re going to make sure you like it, because we’re going to make sure that you can’t undo it. And—.

JAY: Alright.

HAMMER: Go ahead.

JAY: Sorry. Finish off, Frank.

HAMMER: It was such a stealth operation that they actually had big tents for Americans for Prosperity—a Koch-supported group, I believe—filled the galleries in the chambers where these legislation was being enacted, so that no opposition could appear in the public galleries to express their dissent.

JAY: Okay. Well, we’re going to continue doing regular reports with Frank on class war in Michigan. Maybe that’s what we should call your segments, Frank. Thanks for joining us.

HAMMER: Thank you, Paul.

JAY: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.

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