Swift: Workers must seize opportunities, confront 'dark money'
America's modern labor movement was born right here in Michigan. As workers came together to form unions in auto factories, schools, construction sites, and fire stations, it gave working people the power to bargain collectively for fair wages, benefits, and working conditions. Whether you belonged to a union or not, collective bargaining was the engine that drove the expanding middle class for most of the 20th century.
Unfortunately, this century has ushered in a new era, not based on the shared prosperity that built a strong Michigan economy.
This year, dark money forces are planning to spend millions in a coordinated attack on Michigan's labor unions, aimed at deceiving workers and driving down union membership, following the passage of "right-to-work for less."
This new $4.35 million campaign was revealed in a leaked fundraising letter from former Republican Supreme Court Justice Cliff Taylor on behalf of the Mackinac Center, which is backed by the billionaire Koch Brothers and Dick DeVos.
Their plan includes: pushing out more junk research to lawmakers, launching an online propaganda campaign to smear unions, filing frivolous lawsuits, and pushing passage of "right-to-work for less" laws in states like New Mexico, Delaware, and Missouri. It's no mistake that the Mackinac Center is launching this blatant attack during a high profile contract year for Michigan employers and workers.
As this campaign ramps up, the question workers should ask themselves is why an extreme group funded by billionaires would attack unions — which exist for the sole purpose of giving working people a voice on the job. The answer is because these dark money forces understand that unions are the last check on corporate power in America.
Consider the fact that Michigan's S&P 500 CEOs made an average of $14,296,525 in 2014, according to SEC filings. That's 339 times more than the average Michigan worker, who earns $42,162 per year.
If these dark money billionaires are successful at crippling Michigan's unions, who will be left to fight income inequality by pushing for a higher minimum wage, earned sick leave, and pay equity for women? And without strong unions, who will fight unfair trade deals that ship jobs to countries like China and Mexico?
Making our economy work for everyone won't be easy, but in these challenges, there are also new opportunities to rebuild power for Michigan's working families.
To fight back against these looming attacks, workers are joining forces and organizing a diverse movement of everyday people — retirees, environmentalists, the LGBT community, students, and voting rights advocates — that is strong enough to hold politicians accountable year-round, galvanize the public will, and make change happen.
Workers have done it before, and they're ready to do it again.
During a 1960 speech in Detroit, John F. Kennedy explained that "the labor movement is people. Our unions have brought millions of men and women together, made them members one of another, and given them common tools for common goals. Their goals are goals for all America — and their enemies are the enemies of all progress."
As my time as president of the Michigan AFL-CIO draws to a close, I am confident that despite all the challenges we face, the labor movement's mission to give all working people a strong voice will continue for many years to come, with a renewed era of shared prosperity to fuel the economy ahead.
Karla Swift is Michigan state president of the AFL-CIO.
Labor Voices columns are written on a rotating basis by United Auto Workers President Dennis Williams, Teamsters President James Hoffa, Michigan AFL-CIO President Karla Swift and Michigan Education Association President Steven Cook.