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Three words were strangely missing from Sunday night's gubernatorial debate: right to work.

When Republicans jammed through the anti-union legislation in the 2012 lame-duck session, labor promised they'd live to regret it. This fall was supposed to be the calling to account election, when union members would punish the GOP for its overreach in a state that is supposed to be still labor-friendly.

Yet Democrat Mark Schauer never challenged Gov. Rick Snyder Sunday for placing his signature on the law, even when a question was raised about bills passed by the Legislature that the governor may have rather not signed. It was the perfect opening to hammer Snyder on right to work. But Schauer passed.

Nor has the Democratic campaign advertising in this election focused on the affront to organized labor by the governor and Republican legislators.

Have Democrats forgotten their days of rage in December of 2012, when they staged near riots in the capitol in an attempt to block passage of right to work? Or do they realize that it's a loser issue with Michigan voters?

"They know people support right to work, and that it hasn't been the bogeyman it was predicted to be," says former state GOP Chair Ron Weiser, the principal right-to-work fundraiser and a candidate for University of Michigan regent. "It's not a winning issue for them."

Weiser says polling in 2012 consistently put public support for right to work in the high 50s to low 60s.

Democratic insiders say unions have made a calculated decision not to trumpet right to work for fear it will awaken the Republican fundraising machine and motivate the GOP base. They say labor is engaging in a word of mouth campaign to remind union members of right to work and use it to drive them to the polls.

Getting out the union vote is vital for a labor movement that is steadily losing influence with the electorate.

"This is a watershed election for labor," says Howard Edelson, a Democratic campaign strategist. "Unions have to demonstrate they can turn out their members in a way that impacts the governor's race.

"They have the issues on their side, in right to work and other attacks on union rights. If they can't motivate their members now, they never will."

What political observers are watching for but haven't seen yet is evidence that labor is constructing coordinated absentee ballot and get out the vote drives.

If it's happening, it's not as visible as it has been in past elections, although there's certainly time for such efforts to emerge between now and Nov. 4.

To remain politically relevant, labor must not only sway the race for governor, but also the legislative campaigns. It was Republican lawmakers, after all, who passed right to work. If big labor can't use its muscle to punish anti-union legislators in Michigan, of all places, why would lawmakers anywhere be afraid to take up similar measures?

It's an overstatement to call this labor's last stand. But unions did promise to hang right to work around GOP necks in 2014, and so far they haven't delivered.

nfinley@detroitnews.com

(313)222-2064

Follow Nolan Finley at detroitnews.com/finley, on Twitter at nolanfinleydn, on Facebook at nolanfinleydetnews and watch him at 7:30 p.m. Thursdays on "MiWeek" on Detroit Public TV, Channel 56.

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