Lansing— After bruising defeats in 2012, organized labor has rearmed for this fall’s electoral battle to try to keep an open U.S. Senate seat in the Democratic column and dethrone the Republican governor who made Michigan a right-to-work state.
Vice President Joe Biden was scheduled to kick off Detroit’s Labor Day parade in an effort to energize union members to turn out in droves this fall to promote U.S. Rep. Gary Peters to the Senate and oust Gov. Rick Snyder.
Biden is making his second trip to Detroit in the past two months, a move both Democrats and Republicans say shows the White House knows the race between Peters and Republican Terri Lynn Land for retiring Democratic Sen. Carl Levin’s seat could tilt control of the Senate next year.
“We know that they are paying attention to all of these races this fall and are willing to help where they can be most helpful,” said Brian Weeks, national political director for the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees.
But Michigan Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Richard Studley said while he is grateful for Biden’s attention, the visit reflects only that “birds of a feather flock together.”
Snyder has a record of reforms and job creation on which to run this fall, while union supporters of Democratic challenger Mark Schauer love the Obama administration’s “big government” philosophy and are in disarray, Studley said.
“There is a sharp divide between the partisan, radical social agenda being pushed by government employee unions’ leaders ... and the more pragmatic agenda of private-sector business and labor leaders,” Studley said.
Union leaders readily admit they might get outspent this election cycle by Republicans and out-of-state special interest groups defending Snyder and trying to help Land become the first Republican to win a Senate seat in Michigan in 20 years. But other Democratic groups, such as the Senate Majority PAC and Democratic Governors Association, have been financing ads that helped Peters by attacking Land and promoted Schauer.
“The way I think this election is shaping up is the organized people on one side and the organized money on the other side,” said Karla Swift, president of the Michigan State AFL-CIO. “Whatever those numbers are, they’re not really significant because our campaign is not based on a checkbook or banking account. Our campaign is based on using the existing infrastructure of the labor movement.”
The Nov. 4 general election marks the first election since voters soundly defeated organized labor’s attempt in 2012 to enshrine collective bargaining rights in the state constitution — a political maneuver that prompted Snyder and Republican-controlled Legislature to pass the right-to-work law under a storm of protests at the Capitol.
Snyder’s supporters maintain the governor never wanted to have a confrontation with unions, but the Proposal 2 ballot initiative forced him to put right-to-work on his agenda.
“I think Joe Biden coming in and trying to re-spin this thing and say it’s all on Snyder is being intellectually dishonest,” said Bobby Schostak, chairman of the Michigan Republican Party.
Unions since have largely gone silent politically, forgoing recall elections or a ballot initiative to undo the right-to-work law, which made financial support of a union optional.
“I think the unions’ internal polling shows that, surprise, surprise, people really like worker freedom,” said Vincent Vernuccio, labor policy director at the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a free-market think tank in Midland. “July 7, the last day unions could get signatures to repeal right-to-work on the ballot, came and went without so much as a whimper from the unions. And that was after (Taylor Democratic Rep.) Doug Geiss said, ‘There will be blood.’ ”
Geiss warned of political bloodshed during a fiery speech on the House floor in December 2012 as thousands of union workers and leaders — including Schauer — protested the swift passage of right-to-work outside the Capitol.
Ronna Romney McDaniel, Michigan’s Republican national committeewoman, said she doubts Snyder’s signing of the right-to-work law will play much of a role in his race against Schauer.
“When you really look at right-to-work, it gave people the right to opt out of paying dues,” she said. “I think a lot of people thought that’s fair.”
In their fall election messaging to voters, unions are not focused squarely on right to work.
Instead, they are targeting Snyder for a list of grievances, from cuts in local government and classroom funding to banning schools from collecting dues from the paychecks of unionized teachers and other measures designed to curtail union power in the workplace.
“When you talk to my members, what they talk about is (Snyder) making it illegal to bargain over things like (teacher) evaluations,” said Doug Pratt, political director of the Michigan Education Association. “It goes far beyond right to work.”
The MEA is banking on its 150,000 members telling their friends and family how Snyder has “harmed them,” Pratt said.
“That’s going to be the path to victory,” Pratt said.
The chamber’s Studley said Schauer’s allies in the public employee unions such as the MEA still are clinging to policies that amount to “forced unionization.”
Snyder reforms — such as dumping hundreds of outmoded state regulations, pumping $500 million into the state rainy day fund and personal property tax reforms voters overwhelmingly approved Aug. 5 — don’t make sexy campaign sound bites but are beneficial policies that “the governor’s campaign will explain this fall,” he predicted.
“We’re no longer viewed as a declining Rust Belt state,” he said. “I think when people point to those issues, those are good examples of the sharp difference in philosophy and approach between Rick Snyder and Mark Schauer.”
Mark Docherty, president of the Michigan Professional Fire Fighters Union, said his group is focused on educating voters on the effects of less state revenue sharing for municipalities, as firefighters deal with low staffing levels and aging equipment.
“(Snyder) can say it’s the comeback state, but we haven’t seen it yet,” said Docherty, a lieutenant at the Sterling Heights Fire Department.
AFSCME’s newly formed Michigan SuperPAC and the League of Conservation Voters are teaming up to pour $2.1 million into a get-out-the-vote operation aimed at turning out Democratic voters for Peters, said Jeff Gohringer, spokesman for the league.
“The whole goal of the program is to turn out likely Peters supporters who voted in the 2012 presidential election but did not vote in the 2010 midterm election,” Gohringer said.
The League of Conservation Voters spent $400,000 on a TV ad last month that ties Land to industrialists Charles and David Koch, whose Americans for Prosperity has spent more than $6 million to date attacking Peters.
Separately, AFSCME has spent nearly $1 million in TV ads this cycle aiding Peters’ campaign by attacking Land.
“We are heavily invested in Michigan and will continue to be so,” AFSCME’s Weeks said. “We consider it one of our highest-priority states this year.”
In the governor’s race, Weeks said AFSCME has “a very easy message” aimed at turning out voters who sat home four years ago when Snyder trounced Lansing Mayor Virg Bernero.
“Our members in Michigan have felt under the gun, if you will, for the last couple of years under the Snyder administration,” Weeks said.
“They’re aware that the economy is not working for them, that it’s only working for big corporations.”