It has been a dispiriting year for organized labor. Unions contributed greatly to the reelection of Barack Obama and the Democrats’ retention of the Senate, but were punched in the gut before they could savor the victories. Michigan’s Republican legislature and governor rushed a bill through the lame-duck session, making the birthplace of the United Auto Workers a “right-to-work” state. The move has inspired conservative legislators in several other states to follow suit, raising the possibility that a majority of the 50 states will soon be right-to-work, allowing workers to opt out of paying dues to unions even as they benefit from union contracts, and thereby further weakening an institution that has seen its membership drop from a third of the private sector workforce 60 years ago to 7 percent today.
Few have fought harder to keep labor from this plight than Jerry Tucker. An outspoken dissident, Tucker urged an alternate course for American unions for more than three decades, one with a broader progressive message and greater empowerment of rank and file workers. Despite his repeated successes in the field of action, Tucker was largely sidelined by the union establishment. Labor could desperately use Tucker's guidance today, but it's too late: He died in his hometown of St. Louis on October 19 of pancreatic cancer, at age 73.
Still, with the movement he loved in such dire straits, it’s worth reckoning with him and his legacy to ask: Could it have been different? And might it yet be? Tucker, who was born in 1938, bridged worlds apart. A bearish and bearded man, his blue collar roots were impeccable: He was the son of a tool-and-die worker and got his start with the United Auto Workers doing factory work for General Motors and Carter Carburetor. But he was also an unapologetic intellectual. He got a degree from Southern Illinois University; spent some early years hanging around the Beat scene in San Francisco’s North Beach; and, in the final chapter of his career, gave a big speech at the Sorbonne.
“Jerry was in some ways the Lord Byron of our movement -- this deeply committed, eloquent activist and fighter who had this impact on everyone he came in contact with,” said Bill Fletcher, Jr. a fellow unionist, now with the American Federation of Government Employees, who knew Tucker for 20 years. Raised in a segregated city, Tucker married a black woman and was the only white player in St. Louis’ Negro Baseball Sandlot League. “I rarely thought of Jerry as a white guy, and I don’t say this just because he was married to an African-American woman,” Fletcher said. “The fight against racism was part of who Jerry was. He was always quite self-conscious, and I mean this in a good way, of the privileged status he has as a white male in our society.”
By the mid-‘70s, Tucker was working in the UAW’s Washington office, watching as the tide started to turn against labor. Deindustrialization was accelerating, the business lobby was gaining might, and, even with Jimmy Carter in the White House and Democrats in control of Congress, pro-union reforms of labor laws were watered down and ultimately defeated (by two votes in the Senate, as Carter stood by). Pro-management momentum grew stronger with the election of Ronald Reagan and his crushing of the air traffic-controllers union, prompting many labor leaders to drop back into the defensive, accommodationist posture that has prevailed for most of the years since.
Against this stood Tucker. He didn’t care much for the Beltway – “he was definitely not your quintessential Washington labor guy,” said Joe Uehlein, who worked in the AFL-CIO’s industrial division -- and was glad to be dispatched back to Missouri, where he led a come-from-behind effort in 1978 to defeat a referendum to make his home state right-to-work. The referendum was leading in the polls by a 2-1 margin when he took charge of the opposition; he assembled a broad coalition, reaching beyond labor to churches, farmers and women’s groups, and defeated the measure by a 3-2 margin. “It was true mobilization – having unionists explain why unions mattered, go out into the community, with precinct captains all around the state,” said Nelson Lichtenstein, a University of California-Santa Barbara historian. The victory left Missouri as a haven of union-friendly territory on the edge of an otherwise hostile South, and helped preserve it as a political swing state until just recently. For Tucker, the victory proved that even in an era of anti-union sentiment, direct appeals to middle-class interests could still hold sway.
He brought the same lesson to UAW showdowns in the 1980s, working as assistant director for the region stretching from Missouri to Texas. Seeing how ineffective strikes were becoming -- employers were more than happy to take a strike and bring in replacements -- Tucker resuscitated the work-to-rule strategy, in which workers frustrate employers by slowing down operations all the while technically hewing to the letter of their contract. Work-to-rule appealed to Tucker because its success depended on the full understanding and empowerment of the entire workforce. In the most practical terms, this meant getting workers to grasp the “reverse engineering” of plant operations in order to identify the bottlenecks that would confound production without breaking the contract. At a time of precious few victories for unions, Tucker’s approach succeeded at one plant after another, two of which were documented in an AFL-CIO manual on the “Inside Game.” “We would organize a communications network on the shop floor, a 1 to 10 ratio, so everyone’s in the loop,” recalled Uehlein. “It would be putting out word for all different kinds of actions...And it did catch on in a pretty big way.”
At one of the victorious sites, the 500-worker Moog Auto Plant in St. Louis, managers expecting a conventional showdown shut off the power the night that the union’s contract expired in 1981. But at Tucker’s direction, employees reported for work the next morning and launched a six-month internal-pressure campaign: a “solidarity committee” came up with work-to-rule tactics and on-the-job protests, workers contributed a little from each paycheck to support colleagues who were fired or disciplined, and workers, white and black alike, skipped work January 15 to object to the company’s refusal to recognize the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday. As the “Inside Game” manual recounts, the campaign reached its peak when several hundred tradesmen walked out in protest of supervisors’ refusal to deal with smoke and chloride fumes. Management finally came back to the table with a 36 percent pay increase over 40 months – and recognition of MLK Day. Word started to get around about Tucker’s success. As his obituary in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch put it, “He said he had never lost a work-to-rule campaign, never failed to win a fair contract, and always got illegally fired activists their jobs back with back pay.”
But this approach also represented a challenge to union leadership. Whereas the traditional strike depended on the top-down command of union leaders, a robustly-deployed inside game depended on the engagement of workers, who knew the day-to-day operations of the workplace the best and had a better sense of how to confound them than their union superiors did. This was precisely why Tucker advocated for this approach: It was hugely empowering for workers to come up with their own tactics. Invariably, it made them more supportive of major actions--more willing to “up the ante,” as Tucker liked to say.
Not all union bureaucrats were willing to surrender that much control to the rank and file, though, which may explain why Tucker struggled to bring his approach to the national level -- to broaden it across the UAW, whose leadership he saw falling into demoralizing complacency under the guise of labor-management cooperation as the Big 3’s industry share and union activism faded in tandem. Tucker put himself forward for regional director at the 1986 UAW convention and was on the verge of winning when, as In These Times’ obituary recounts, “the union’s long-dominant administration caucus brought to the convention two union officers from a small Texas local who had not been elected as delegates to cast the deciding votes against him. Tucker challenged the election, and the Labor Department successfully sued to overturn it. He won when the balloting was held again in 1988, but a year later the administration caucus poured enormous effort into a campaign against him, and he lost.”
In 1992, he ran for president of the union as part of the insurrectionist, rank-and-file based New Directions reform movement. Fletcher, who reluctantly turned down Tucker’s invitation to be his campaign manager, recalls the vision: “He said to me that there needs to be a labor reformation...He was not simply talking about more militancy, he was simply talking about better tactics, he was talking about a rethinking of the role and mission of the union movement...It meant the centrality of the member...The rank and file needed real education, not simply training on filing grievances but helping people develop a progressive world view. Labor needed to be outspoken on a broader range of issues that went beyond the workplace.”
Tucker lost the long-shot bid, and was officially persona non grata. “He told me, ‘you’re going to get the word that we can’t talk anymore,’” recalled Uehlein. “The word came down very hard.” But his reputation had been established and his lone-wolf services were enlisted -- often over the objections of union higher-ups -- for a range of battles, most notably at the giant Staley agriculture processing plant in Decatur, Ill in the early 1990s. It was an epic showdown, with teargas deployed against worker protests. After first trying the work-to-rule approach, Tucker deployed a “corporate campaign” after the company locked out workers in 1993 – putting pressure on big Staley customers such as Miller beer, which responded to the union’s pressure by dropping Staley as a supplier. Tucker dispatched “road warriors” across the country to make the case for the workers’ cause and why it mattered to everyone else and raise money for the locked-out workers.
But to no avail. Staley’s owners, the huge British sugar conglomerate Tate & Lyle, wore the union down over time, aided by a lack of resolve at the upper levels of the newly merged international that housed the Staley workers. When workers voted to end the lockout after 30 months, with the corporate campaign on the verge of persuading Pepsi to drop Staley but with union higher-ups urging resolution, only 110 of 760 workers got their jobs back.
Meanwhile, Tucker had been taking on lower-profile fights for unions like the newspaper guild unit at the Post-Dispatch, where he was called in after the Pulitzer company hired anti-union lawyers to break the guild. There was no teargas here, but the tactics were similar – doing everything possible to get the broader St. Louis community to understand why the guild’s fight mattered to them, and to get it to exert pressure on Pulitzer. “It was: You can’t just stand in front of your building and yell about your company,” said Jeff Gordon, the leader of the guild local. “You’ve got to go out to other groups that would be concerned – faith groups, politicians. Any group where people assemble and care about your community, that’s where you’ve got to go and talk about it in terms they can appreciate….Get your people to get out and talk. It’s hard, but it convinced us to get off our butts.” The guild won, and the Post-Dispatch remains a union shop to this day.
Beyond these individual fights, Tucker kept up his broader campaign as a dissident reformer, helping found issue-based coalitions such as Labor Campaign for Single Payer Healthcare and U.S. Labor Against the War and groups such as the Center for Labor Renewal, which held “solidarity schools” where Tucker preached his vision for the movement. He was unimpressed by upheavals in the upper echelons of the movement, such as the split of several large unions from the AFL-CIO in 2005, led by Andy Stern, leader of the Service Employees International Union. As Tucker saw it, this was merely a shuffling of deck chairs on a doomed liner--or rather, a shuffling of ship captains with little regard for empowering those in the decks below. As he put in his 2005 speech at the Sorbonne, at a conference on U.S. social movements, “Not part of the leader-led debate is the more fundamental question of the ‘culture’ of unionism in America today. Can the present debate really make a difference if it avoids an objective examination of what the labor movement should stand for – its larger social purposes, the education and activism of its base, and the democratic principles that must underpin its governance?”
The speech grew more fiery as he went on. None of the proposals from the big unions “raises the banner of a new social vision to counter the market-driven economic and political stratification of American life.” Looking back at labor’s decline, he declared that it “went through the 1970s looking more like a guest whose invitation to the ‘big party’ had been rescinded than the respected voice of the American working class.” Labor should have recognized the crisis of its declining membership and made a “significant effort to organize all people that are broadly included in the nation’s working class.” Instead, in the 1980s, union leaders were on “cruise control”: “rank and file workers were now under a relentless and accelerating attack, and the remote, relatively comfortable upper echelon could not feel the pain.”
By the speech’s end, Tucker turned sweeping: “Overcoming the crisis starts with the introduction of a new vision of a just society. A nascent left within labor and community organizations can help supply that vision and bring important organizing, strategic, and tactical, and coalition building skills to a resurgent struggle for justice. But the current labor leaders are debating process, not direction. Their arguments are narrow and bureaucratically ministerial. What’s also missing in today’s debate among the union heads is anger, a deep and resolute class anger. Some leaders seem more angry with each other than with the perpetrators of the crisis they claim to want to solve. Many are in denial. And much of the debate represents an exercise in unyielding parochialism.”
What labor needed is a “clear definition of our generic enemy. Some have named a few rogue corporations or particularly bad employers, but that does not describe the concerted nature of this sustained attack…Taking on Wal-Mart, and ‘Wal-Martization’ is worth doing, but it’s just one part of capital’s offensive. Ours is a crisis with a million victims. Those victims are being attacked by enemies – corporate and governmental – with a shared ideology. Labor should not shrink from condemning that ideology.”
Could Americans today really rally to such a message? Yes, he argued. “Today many American workers are cynical and collectively do have reduced expectations. They know all too well that their quality of life is under attack, and, for many of them, that unionism has not held up its end in the struggle….But that does not mean now…that the willingness to fight back, the urgency to resist injustice, and the desire for dignity have been driven from the consciousness of our sisters and brothers. They have it in them to engage in struggle when they perceive the struggle has immediacy in their lives, when the injustices are real, and when they know they will not be alone.”
Tucker gave a last iteration of his call to the Labor Notes conference this past May, which he addressed by video link after receiving the conference’s Troublemakers award. His face was hollowed by cancer, but he spoke emphatically to the camera: “The journey has been bumpy and the struggle for justice and working class dignity never takes a holiday. As an old civil rights veteran told me in the 1960s regarding our classist and racist enemies, ‘Always remember son, they be scheming while you be dreaming.’ It was true then and no less true today. The enemy of the working class is relentless and we have to be no less relentless in our response, and strategic. Beware of the false prophets in our ranks who call for accommodation and appeasement as an answer. Our ultimate strength is the organization of our members and the collective deployment of them strategically and tactically. An informed and well-organized rank and file is at the center of every victorious struggle. I have an uncompromising faith in the rank and file’s capacity to respond when the truth is shared.”
Tucker died five months later; he was advising unions up until his health collapsed at the very end. And it was hard not to hear the echo of his warnings in the news of the past few weeks: it was the home base of the union that cast him out, the UAW, that absorbed the right-to-work blow; one of the states where Republicans have been inspired to follow suit is Missouri, site of Tucker’s first big victory 35 years ago.
Counterfactual conjectures are just that, but one can’t help but wonder whether unions, and the country’s working and middle class, would be in any better position today had labor recognized earlier just how powerful the challenge to its existence was, how deleterious the consequences of its decline would be in contributing to the stagnation of wages and rise in inequality that have defined our economy for the past three decades. Indeed, it is not hard to see Tucker’s influence in the remaining pockets where labor does retain real influence, such as the International Longshore and Warehouse Union, on the west coast, and the Chicago Teachers Union, which employed an unusually rank-and-file-driven approach in its recent showdown with Mayor Rahm Emanuel. Tucker’s vision was not without blind spots – he was too quick to dismiss the more mundane reforms that could aid labor’s cause, such as the long-stalled Employee Free Choice Act, which would make it easier for workers to organize but in all likelihood will require filibuster reform to ever have a prayer of becoming law. But Tucker’s legacy offers a reminder that ire over the plight of the struggling working and lower middle class – Mitt Romney’s 47 percent – need not turn to apathy or resignation. It can also serve to rally and bind. It may not be the labor movement as presently constituted that leads that rallying – that’s a subject for another day – but the ire and desire for a better lot will be out there among American workers, by the millions, looking for someone to harness it as Jerry Tucker never stopped trying to do for the past thirty-five years.
Port operators and Eastern longshoremen agreed Friday to avoid a potentially crippling strike set for Sunday at 14 major US ports, at least for now. Negotiators refused to release details of the deal, but labor experts suggest the daring strike threat by dockworkers is indicative of a broader gambit by a besieged labor movement to claw back some power amid a strengthening US economy.
The agreement over so-called “container royalties” worth up to $15,000 a year for an average longshoreman does not fully resolve the dispute, but is part of a 30-day contract negotiation extension agreed upon by the International Longshoremen’s Association and the US Maritime Alliance, which represents shipping companies and ports.
“The container royalty payment issue has been agreed upon in principle by the parties, subject to achieving an overall collective bargaining agreement,” said George Cohen, director of the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service.
While federal mediators refused to disclose the agreement and said “significant issues remain in contention,” Mr. Cohen said what he can report “is that the agreement on this important subject represents a major positive step toward achieving an overall … agreement.”
With Washington frantically trying to stave off a national “fiscal cliff” of tax increases and automatic budget cuts, the already wobbling US economy likely would have teetered further if the 14,500 longshoremen had walked off docks from New York to Houston on Sunday. The workers handle 40 percent of US container traffic – about 100 million tons a year – and a strike could have cost $1 billion a day by blocking what is, in effect, the lifeblood of the US marketplace.
The situation had become serious enough for state leaders, including Florida Gov. Rick Scott, to call on President Obama to invoke the Taft-Hartley Act, a federal labor law used by President George W. Bush to end a 10-day, 29-port lockout on the West Coast in 2002.
The gritty longshoremen, meanwhile, are uniquely situated to push their agenda, even at the risk of losing public and political support, labor experts say. While relatively small, the longshoremen’s union historically has been aggressive in protecting its workers’ benefits, and its members’ central role to the US economy makes the union a particularly tough negotiator.
The strike reprieve was in part achieved with the help of federal negotiators dispatched by Mr. Obama, who owes much of his political success to unions but who has been wary of pursuing pro-union legislation that could negatively impact the soft economy.
Citing traffic-clogging Thanksgiving protests by the Service Employees International Union at Los Angeles International Airport, bakers going to battle with Hostess, and a recent eight-day clerical workers strike at West Coast ports (where most longshoremen refused to cross picket lines), labor expert Philip Dine says the movement “is clearly in a more aggressive mode right now.”
“I think what we’re seeing is … labor realizing that it needs to think about and pursue its own goals,” says Mr. Dine, author of the newly revised book “State of the Unions.” “And when you’re willing to [cripple port traffic and] stall traffic at major airports on the busiest travel day of the year, it shows labor is willing to antagonize shoppers and travelers, and it means labor means business.”
Chris Rohmberg, a sociology professor at Fordham University, told The Oregonian newspaper this month that a series of dockworker actions – including the recent clerical strike and a looming shutdown of several northwestern ports over failed contract negotiations – are about workers setting a new tone with their employers as the economy struggles its way out of recession.
“The whole relationship between employers and workers is on the table,” Mr. Rohmberg told The Oregonian.
While union membership has been falling for decades, several dockworkers’ unions have seen membership tick up in recent years, partly in response to a recession and prolonged recovery that has made workers feel particularly vulnerable to management cutbacks.
According to Dine, discord in the labor movement and disillusionment over broader social and economic trends have been largely cast aside amid what many see as an all-out war on labor by conservatives, including nearly a dozen Republican governors in the Rust Belt. The governors are seen as trying to eviscerate the labor movement by arguing, in essence, the illegitimacy of public worker unions, whose members now make up the majority of the US labor movement.
“At this point, if you destroy public-sector unions you destroy the labor movement, which means labor is now fighting for its life,” says Dine. “As a response, the labor movement has become more serious, determined, unified, and energetic, and so it’s not really any surprise that you’re seeing these signs of activism, which, objectively, you might not expect in a poor economy or with a Democratic president.”
While negotiators remain “cautiously optimistic,” in Cohen’s words, a longshoremen’s strike remains possible. Such an action would have a vast impact on the US economy, crippling a US supply chain that has become increasingly “direct-to-market” as retailers and car companies rely less on stockpiled goods.
Meanwhile, labor experts say consumers and businesses should expect to see more labor disruptions across the country, as unions begin to rally after years of retrenchment.
December 28, 2012: At the end of December in 1936 -- exactly 76 years ago -- brave unionists took over the mother-plants of General Motors, the largest corporation in the world, in sit down strikes which within months would win a contract, and help launch the modern labor movement.
It was four years after militant Teamsters in Minneapolis invented their own tactics of "flying picket squads" to follow trucks and make Minneapolis a union town. And they did so with zero support from the International Union, which opposed their efforts and strike and even tried to kick these courageous leaders out of the union.
Read more about the sit-down strikes here.
Well, they refused for about two hours in Charleston, S.C., today. The ship carried Wal-Mart-bound cargo from the Bangladesh factory that burned last month, killing 112 workers.
The Post and Courier reports,
Longshoremen refused to unload a ship on Thursday morning for more than an hour in a show of solidarity with workers in Bangladesh who labor in dangerous sweatshops for pennies an hour, a spokesman said.
“It’s the cargo on the ship. We’ve got a concern about workers around the world,” said Leonard Riley of International Longshoreman’s Association 1422.
After the protest, the dock workers said they would return to their jobs and unload the Carolina Maersk...
The Examiner goes into a little more detail, reporting members of the group demonstrating against Wal-Mart included the South Carolina Workers' Rights Coalition, Petigru Free Speech Defense, Corporate Action Network and Occupy Charleston. The Examiner also reports:
The Tazreen Fashions factory in Bangladesh’s capital city of Dhaka, which makes many clothing items sold by the discount department store, caught fire on Nov. 24...
Upgrades in factory safety and fire prevention were requested last year, but a Wal-Mart representative blocked the proposal, say two Bangladeshi officials.
Not only is this shipment of its products an insult to the workers who died in that fire, says the protest organizer, but it furthers damage to the American economy and employment, too.
While Wal-Mart is the nation’s largest employer and clears over $15 billion in annual net profit, 80 percent of its workers qualify for food stamps due to low pay.
The annual cost of government benefits to these workers, who are paid an average of only $8.81 an hour, comes to $2.66 billion, according to Good Jobs First.
Wal-Mart’s use of foreign-made products is responsible for the loss of 196,000 American jobs, says the Economic Policy Institute, and the corporation is also responsible for 11 percent of the total trade deficit with China.
Misclassified port truck drivers are also a casualty of Wal-Mart's relentless drive to lower costs along the supply chain. The Teamsters have long sought to improve wages and working conditions for port drivers.
December 11, 2012: More than 12,000 union members and supporters flooded the State Capitol in Michigan to protest the passage of Right-to-Work (for Less) legislation.
Police closed the Capitol to visitors when it reached capacity of 2,200 people. More than 10,000 Teamsters, Autoworkers, teachers, building trades workers, other union members and public supporters swarmed the outside.
The House passed a Right to Work bill covering public sector workers by 58 to 51. The state's Senate approved the bill last week. The House is now scheduled to vote on a right-to-work bill for private-sector employees.
When Right-to-Work legislation was passed in Ohio, the labor movement mobilized a successful referendum to reverse the legislation. But, in a legislative trick, the Michigan Right-to-Work legislation is attached to an appropriations bill and can't be reversed by referendum.
One possibility for the labor movement would be to launch a "veto referendum" that would be triggered by collecting signatures equal to 5% of the votes cast in the last election for governor.
There is another option called a "statutory initiative" which would require signatures from 8% of the voters in the last gubernatorial election. That would allow the public to vote on Right-to-Work legislation in November 2014 when Governor Rick Snyder is up for reelection.
Whatever the tactics, the fight against Right-to-Work (for Less) in Michigan has just begun.
LANSING, Mich. — Over the shouts of thousands of angry protesters gathered outside the State Capitol here, Michigan's House of Representatives on Tuesday approved a bill that would vastly reduce the power of organized labor in this traditionally strong union state.
The 58-to-51 vote was the first piece of a two-part package, that would, among other things, bar workers from being required to pay union fees as a condition of employment.
"Recall! Recall! Recall!" union supporters cried out from the gallery.
Before the vote, Democrats in the state's House of Representatives, where Republicans hold a 64-to-46 majority over Democrats, were desperately trying to offer amendments to the measures in order to derail them. Among the suggestions: Send the question to a public vote. So far, all amendments had been rejected.
"This is being forced down peoples' throats," said Jon M. Switalski, a Democrat, speaking against the legislation. "It's being done so in a very poor way — in lame-duck with no committee meetings."
Democrats, one by one, recalled their family histories in labor unions and reminisced about what unions once meant to the country, but primarily, they talked about their objections to the speed and method of the Republican-sponsored legislation.
Joan Bauer, a Democrat, said she was saddened and sickened by what was happening.
"I cannot believe this legislations was rammed through in one day," Ms. Bauer said.
But Rick Olson, a Republican, said the legislation was a matter of worker choice, not of harming unions. Mr. Olson described the move as "tough love" for unions.
As the debate continued, the Capitol was closed after the authorities said the building had reached its capacity, leaving noisy union members — many dressed in red — on the lawn outside.
They chanted, the sound of their drums becoming increasingly loud: "Kill the bill! Kill the bill!"
Streets around the Capitol building were closed to traffic and numerous clusters of state police, some carrying riot gear, kept posts throughout the building and along nearby streets. At least two school districts around the state announced that they would close for the day, as word spread that teachers and other workers planned to protest in Lansing.
Democrats, including President Obama, have denounced the measures. Final passage requires votes by the State House of Representatives on two measures — one dealing with employees at private companies, the other with most public workers — and a signature from Gov. Rick Snyder, which is expected later in the week.
"You know, these so-called right-to-work laws, they don't have to do with economics," said Mr. Obama, during a visit to a truck factory outside Detroit on Monday. "They have everything to do with politics. What they're really talking about is giving you the right to work for less money."
From a distance, there would seem no more unlikely a target for this fight than Michigan, where labor, hoping to demonstrate strength after a series of setbacks, asked voters last month to enshrine collective bargaining into the State Constitution.
But that ballot measure failed badly, and suddenly a reverse drive was under way that has brought the state to a moment startling in its symbolism. How the home of the United Automobile Workers finds itself close to becoming the 24th state to ban compulsory union fees — and only the second state to pass such legislation in a decade — is the latest chapter in a larger battle over the role of unions in the nation's midsection.
It is a reflection of mounting tension between labor leaders and Michigan Republicans who took control of the state two years ago, and the result of a change of position by Mr. Snyder, a political novice who had long avoided the issue because, he had said, it was too divisive. It is also an effort being closely watched — and fueled, labor leaders say — by national conservative groups who see the outcome in Michigan as an emblem for similar measures in other states with far thinner union histories.
"Everybody has this image of Michigan as a labor state," said Bill Ballenger, the editor of Inside Michigan Politics. "But organized labor has been losing clout, and the Republicans saw an opportunity, and now the chickens are coming home to roost."
Since the wave of Republican wins in 2010 in statehouses in the Midwest, campaigns to limit unions have boiled over in Wisconsin, Ohio, Indiana and elsewhere. But in Michigan, where Republicans also won control, those efforts had seemed more muted, with some in the party, including Mr. Snyder, shying away from the broadest, most sweeping measures.
As it has throughout the country, membership in unions has fallen here in recent decades — about 17.5 percent of Michigan residents are members — and the statewide ballot proposal failed by 14 percentage points on Nov. 6, even as Mr. Obama won the state.
What began as a peaceful protest this morning became testy this afternoon, prompting Michigan State Police officers to don their riot gear—and some hopping on horses—to control an increasingly angry crowd.
It was a crowd that at one point tore down a tent being occupied by Americans for Prosperity, a pro right-to-work group. As they tore the tent down, protesters yelled "Tear it down, tear it down."
The dismantling came after a verbal skirmish between those who favor the legislation and the protesters who had begun crowding around the tent.
"Keep your hands off other people's stuff," one of the pro right-to-work activists said as some in the crowd started pulling at the tent.
"Keep your hands off my money," a protester yelled back.
One man deep in the crowd appeared to be dismayed, yelling out "hey now, that's civil disobedience," after they started taking down the tent.
As voting began inside the state Capitol, the crowd outside swelled to more than 10,000 people by police estimates.
The protestors closest to the Capitol pounded drums and empty buckets while chanting in an effort to sway legislators inside.
At the same time, a large pro-union rally was being held in front of Lansing's City Hall, as giant loudspeakers boomed the speakers' voices across the Capitol lawn.
Included among the speakers was United Auto Worker President Bob King.
"Unions built the middle class of America," he said. "This is a national attack. These folks want to shift more and more of the wealth to a smaller and smaller group of people."
Speaker after speaker, including firefighters, teachers and factory workers, vowed today's protest was just the start. They said they would follow legislators all over the state to remind people of their votes.
One said they'd be at Gov. Rick Snyder's daughter's soccer game.
Melissa Waters, of Ann Arbor, was among those listening to the speakers.
"My dad and mom were union workers. Without the contracts they bargained for, we wouldn't have had food on our table or clothes to wear," she said.
The crowds began building early, with the bulk arriving around 8:30 a.m.
Led by three police officers on motorcycles, hundreds of union workers and activists marched from the Lansing Center to the Michigan Capitol building this morning, chanting "Hey, hey! Ho, ho! Right-to-work has got to go!" along the way.
Crowds of people streamed into the Lansing Center before the march, including a bearded man in a Santa suit carrying a sign declaring the "GOP stole Christmas."
When the group arrived at the Capitol, they were greeted by a crowd of thousands who had already settle upon the Capitol lawn, shouting, singing and pumping their arms in what is expected to be the largest public protest the seat of state government has ever seen. Protestors, supporters and media from inside and outside Michigan gathered to speak on the controversial issue that has divided the state, and sent ripples across the country.
Union members hoisted a large inflatable rat to the top of the Capitol steps, dubbing it the "Snyder rat."
Ray Litt was standing on the sidelines outside the Capitol this morning, holding a sign that perfectly portrayed his feelings: "Gov. Snyder, Shame on You for Caving to the Right."
Litt, owner of Litt Electrics in Detroit and a longtime union member and supporter, said the legislation attempts to undo all "the wonderful, positive things unions have done for people."
He said he belonged to a union for many years, and when he opened his business he hired union workers. He and others talked about their disappointment that Michigan lawmakers are pushing to approve the legislation during the lame duck session.
"I hope lawmakers will recognize the need to have a process that involves the people," Litt said. "When 2014 rolls around, this kind of action will be met with a real response."
He said lawmakers who approve the legislation will likely face a strong fight to keep their seats. And he predicted there will be recalls.
On the third floor of the Capitol, dozens of union members circled the rail of the Capitol rotunda, shouting, "This is our house," as they waited to get into the public gallery.
"I am a kindergarten teacher," said Renee Theisen of Warren, whose school district was closed today because so many teachers came to Lansing. "We just want our voices heard. This is important to us to belong to a union, and we want to keep it that way."
Brett Brown of Owosso, a member of UAW Local 602, said: "I hope that they hear that we're disappointed with the way this Legislature has handled this issue, especially the governor. I am hoping to effect change."
A huge contingent of police, armed with billy clubs, began surrounding the Capitol and streaming inside before dawn. Shortly before 8 a.m. today, they began allowing the people inside and they scrambled for the few precious spots in the gallery overlooking the House floor.
Police have limited the amount of public in the common areas of the Capitol to 2,200, including 160 in the Senate gallery and 195 in the House gallery.
"We're feeling good today," said Michigan State Police Inspector Gene Adamczyk. "We have an enhanced police presence and we want to be highly visible so people feel safe and secure."
READ THE RIGHT-TO-WORK BILLS:
On the front Capitol steps, a tea party sign posted by the group American For Prosperity, advocating "workplace freedom," was posted above the crowd.
Conservative groups had reserved the use of the front steps.
But it was union representatives who stood on the steps this morning, rallying the growing crowd on the Capitol lawn.
"Stop the attacks on the middle class," read signs carried by demonstrators.
Carolyn Hietamaki was up at 2 a.m. to make the 7-hour drive from Marquette to Lansing.
"Look at all my brothers and sisters," she said, gesturing towards the thousands of people who filled the Capitol lawn.
"We hope he at least listens," she said, referring to Snyder.
Hietamaki said her union could be weakened by the right to work legislation because if people opt to leave the union "you don't have the same voice." And that concerns her as a nurse because she said she uses her contract to ensure that patient loads aren't too high.
Hietamaki traveled to Wisconsin when similar legislation was making its way through the Legislature there. Today, there's a similar feeling of solidarity among workers.
"We're all in the same boat. We want to support our families."
All sides have called for peaceful demonstrations.
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Join Teamsters who are fighting back against Right-to-Work (for Less) legislation in Michigan.
On Tuesday, Dec. 11 at 9 am, Teamsters, other union members and community supporters will rally in the State Capitol against the Right-to-Work legislation that is being rammed through the Michigan legislature.
If you live in Michigan, email your State Representative and State Senator today and urge them to VOTE “NO” on Right-to-Work (for Less) when it comes up for a final vote.
The Teamsters Union is also encouraging interested members to attend a Civil Disobedience training on Saturday, December 8, at UAW Local 600: 10550 Dix Ave, Dearborn, MI 48120 at 10: am.
Read more about the fight to defend workers rights at Labor Notes.
December 7, 2012: Michigan workers and unions have been hit with "right to work" legislation which would outlaw union contract clauses with employers that require all workers to pay dues or a fair share fee. The bill passed the Michigan House yesterday in a sneak attack; it was rushed through the lame-duck session with no hearings held on the important bill.
Many of the bill’s supporters will not be in office next month when the newly-elected legislature takes office. No Democrats voted for the bill, and a few Republicans opposed it also. Governor Rick Snyder has endorsed the anti-labor bill and presumably would sign it within a week.
Thousands of unionists and worker-advocates rushed to the capital to be heard, but found themselves locked out of the capital building. Labor is vowing a campaign in the streets and ballot box to reverse the anti-labor law.
Michigan will be only the second state in the mid-west or northeast states to suffer this law. Indiana adopted the law in February, the first state to do so in over a decade.
The biggest wave of job actions in the history of America’s fast-food industry began at 6:30 a.m. on Thursday at a McDonald’s at Madison Avenue and 40th Street, with several dozen protesters chanting: “Hey, hey, what do you say? We demand fair pay.”
That demonstration kicked off a day of walkouts and rallies at dozens of Burger King, Taco Bell, Wendy’s, McDonald’s and other fast-food restaurants in New York City, organizers said. They said 14 of the 17 employees scheduled to work the morning shift at the McDonald’s on Madison Avenue did not — part of what they said were 200 fast-food workers who went on strike in the city.
Raymond Lopez, 21, an aspiring actor who has worked at the McDonald’s for two and a half years, showed up at the daybreak protest on his day off. “In this job, having a union would really be a dream come true,” said Mr. Lopez, who said his pay of $8.75 an hour left him feeling undercompensated. “It really is living in poverty.”
Workplace experts said it was by far the largest series of job actions at fast-food restaurants ever — part of an ambitious plan that seeks to unionize workers and increase wages at fast-food restaurants across the city.
The unionization drive, called Fast Food Forward, is sponsored by community and civil rights groups — including New York Communities for Change, United NY.org and the Black Institute — as well as the Service Employees International Union. The campaign has deployed 40 organizers since January to rally fast-food workers behind unionization, saying the goal is to raise wages to $15 an hour.
Rick Cisneros, the franchisee who operates the McDonald’s at 40th and Madison, said: “I value my employees. I welcome an open dialogue while always encouraging them to express any concerns or to provide feedback so I can continue to be an even better employer.”
Several mayoral candidates — including Christine C. Quinn, the City Council speaker; Bill de Blasio, the public advocate; John C. Liu, the comptroller; and William C. Thompson Jr., a former comptroller — were quick to voice support for the workers. As those candidates vie for the Democratic nomination, they are furiously jockeying for union support.
Mary Kay Henry, the service employees’ president, said the fast-food companies could easily afford to pay their employees more. “People who work for the richest corporations in America should be able to afford at least the basic necessities to support their families,” she said.
Labor leaders say they see an uptick in activism among low-wage workers — including last week’s Walmart protests — as workers grow increasingly frustrated about pay stagnating at $8 or $9 an hour, translating into $16,000 or $18,000 a year for a full-time worker.
Pamela Waldron, who has worked at the KFC in Pennsylvania Station for eight years, complained that she earned just $7.75 an hour and was assigned just 20 hours a week, meaning income of about $8,000 a year. She was picketing outside a Burger King on 34th Street, as several dozen workers and their supporters chanted, “How can we survive on seven twenty-five” — $7.25 an hour is the federal and New York State minimum wage.
“I’m protesting for better pay,” Ms. Waldron, 26, said. “I have two kids under 6, and I don’t earn enough to buy food for them.”
Miguel Piedra, a Burger King spokesman, said its restaurants provide entry-level jobs for millions of Americans, train and invest in workers, and “offer compensation and benefits that are consistent with the quick-service restaurant industry.”
Fast Food Forward said it had filed six complaints with the National Labor Relations Board, asserting that various restaurant managers had threatened to fire workers for striking or supporting a union or had improperly interrogated workers about backing the effort.
The protest on Thursday culminated in a rally with hundreds of fast-food workers and their supporters outside the McDonald’s on 42nd Street west of Times Square. They chanted, “Hey, hey, ho, ho, seven-twenty-five has got to go.”
Inside the McDonald’s on Madison Avenue on Thursday morning, a few workers made funny faces as their friends demonstrated outside. A few patrons, quaffing coffee and gobbling sausage McMuffins, eyeballed the protesters with concern through the restaurant windows.
Jocelyn Horner, 35, a graduate student, said she supported the protesters. “If anybody deserves to unionize, it’s fast-food workers,” she said.
A cashier whose name tag read “Milady” said she chose not to participate in the demonstration.
“At least I have a job,” she said.