The new president of the United Auto Workers is pushing to get union members and retirees to the polls on Nov. 4, spurred by Michigan's enactment of a right-to-work law.
The Detroit-based union knows that union members and many pro-union members often skip midterm congressional elections. But their leaders are hoping the law signed by Gov. Rick Snyder, which allows employees to skip union dues at unionized workplaces, will motivate labor supporters to vote against the Republican incumbent and his legislative supporters.
The UAW — like the AFL-CIO, the labor umbrella network, and other unions — is using social media, texts, fliers, phone calls and other efforts to get members, retirees and pro-labor voters to the polls instead of bankrolling commercials for candidates. The autoworkers union launched a website — uawendorsements.org — to list candidates it is backing.
"It's all about get-out-the-vote," UAW President Dennis Williams said in a recent Detroit News interview. "It's not about that 30-second commercial."
This will be the first major election in Michigan since the GOP-controlled state Legislature pushed through right-to-work legislation in December 2012.
The UAW wants to make the decision and other acts by the Republican-controlled Legislature that the UAW and others have called "anti-union" key drivers to get members to election booths.
"We're doing a lot of education to our members — a huge amount — probably more so than we have for a while. We're getting out there really having that dialogue — trying to get them to understand how the ballot box and the bread box are connected," Williams said, using the late UAW President Walter Reuther's expression.
But Michigan Republicans argue the right-to-work law helped give workers the freedom to decide how to spend their money.
"The main focus there was making union bosses more accountable to union members," Michigan GOP spokesman Darren Littell said. "They no longer have a monopoly over the union members. They have a choice whether the union is worth their hard-earned money."
Michigan Democrats have been holding events at UAW local union halls in the state in a bid to boost turnout. But Williams said it's hard to get people interested in non-presidential elections.
"I think (Snyder's) beatable," Williams said. "It's whether people are going to get out the vote."
Michigan still ranks seventh-highest in the nation in union membership. Although membership by Michigan workers in unions fell from 16.6 percent in 2012 to 16.3 percent in the state last year, the number of unionized workers in the state increased from 629,000 in 2012 to 633,000 in 2013 as the overall workforce grew.
In a Detroit News-WDIV (Local 4) poll of 600 likely Michigan voters early this month, 28.3 percent identified themselves as belonging to a union household. The poll shows union households favor Schauer 57-29 percent over Snyder — the Republican former computer CEO and venture capitalist — while non-union households backed Snyder 51-30 percent.
The poll had a margin of error of plus-minus 4 percentage points.
Lansing political analyst Bill Ballenger said unions' efforts to get out the vote have seemed pretty quiet and haven't received a lot of attention.
"There hasn't been as much focus on unions and their role as you might think," said Ballenger, associate editor at the Inside Michigan Politics newsletter, adding that Democrats are trying hard to boost turnout of union voters.
He noted that voter turnout in the primary was low — 17.9 percent — and, if the trend holds up, it would be a bad sign for labor and Democrats.
Unions have seized on fact that Snyder signed legislation to tax certain pensions in 2011 as part of a tax overhaul, giving union members a second issue to get fired up about. It imposed the 4.25 percent income tax on residents born after 1952, while certain amounts of pension income are exempted for those born before 1952.
"If that doesn't do it, what will?" Ballenger asked.
Most states tax at least part of retirees' pensions.
Schauer, who was business development representative for the Michigan Laborers union before running for governor, has pledged to urge legislative repeal of the right-to-work law if elected.
Snyder has defended the law as giving workers the choice to pay dues.
"If you see value in a union and they show you a proposition that's valuable to you, you should want to join," Snyder said at a Sept. 29 town hall event in Kalamazoo.
"You should be happy to give them dues. … But if they're not doing something to make it worth your time, should you be forced to pay?"
The full effect of the law hasn't been felt yet. It didn't affect existing contracts, and many unions rushed to extend contracts before it took effect in late March.
Much of the UAW's membership is concentrated in Michigan, Ohio, Indiana and Illinois — a key focus of its election efforts.
Williams said the election is key for the future of the country.
Republicans "attack the very thing that lifted people from poverty to the middle class, which is unions. The Republican party won't even entertain a jobs bill," Williams said. "I think the American people are ready to make these tough choices. I think the American people want our representatives taking common-sense approaches to things."
Michigan Republicans counter that the policies of the governor and Legislature are helping the bottom lines of families.
"Gov. Rick Snyder and the Republican ticket have led Michigan back on the road to economic recovery," Littell said. "We have support from many coalitions including union members."
Williams held a telephone town hall last month with Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, to encourage union workers to get to the polls. Last month, he was in Illinois and spoke to Gov. Pat Quinn, Sen. Dick Durbin and Attorney General Lisa Madigan about campaigns there.