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Michigan GOP Push Through Anti-Union, Elite-Backed “Right-to-Work” Law Before House Majority Shrinks

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Thousands are expected to protest in Michigan today as Republican Gov. Rick Snyder prepares to sign a pair of anti-union bills that would make his the 24th so-called “right-to-work” state in the country. Pushed through before Democrats gain five House seats in the new Legislature next month, opponents call the effort an organized attack against labor that will suppress wages and weaken collective bargaining rights. “He’s decided to support the most divisive piece of legislation that’s ever come forward in Michigan,” says Democratic Michigan State Representative Brandon Dillon. “You’ll see by the people gathering at the Capitol today that he’s tearing the state apart.” [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We begin today’s show in Michigan, where a major fight is brewing over workers’ right to unionize. Thousands are expected to protest today as the state’s Republican Governor Rick Snyder prepares to sign a pair of anti-union bills that would make Michigan the 24th so-called “right-to-work” state in the country. Supporters say the legislation will help Michigan jump-start its economy by attracting new, needed businesses without infringing on workers’ rights. But opponents say the bill is an organized attack against labor that will result in lower wages and diminished collective bargaining rights.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: These so-called right-to-work laws, they don’t have to do with economics; they have everything to do with politics. What they’re really talking about is giving you the right to work for less money. You only have to look to Michigan, where workers were instrumental in reviving the auto industry, to see how unions have helped build not just a stronger middle class but a stronger America.

AMY GOODMAN: Michigan state Republicans have fought to advance the anti-union legislation before Democrats gain five House seats in the new Legislature next month. After initially opposing the measures, Michigan Governor Snyder explained on Fox News why he now intends to sign the right-to-work bill into law.

GOV. RICK SNYDER: It’s really important for a couple reasons. First of all, it’s all about being pro-worker. We have hard-working people in Michigan, and it’s important to give them the freedom to choose. They should be able to choose whether to join a union or not. And this is about the relationship between a union and workers, not about employers and unions, not about collective bargaining. This is solely focused on their relationship. And shouldn’t people have the opportunity to say they want to belong or not? The second piece is, is I think this can be good for economic development, for more and better jobs coming to Michigan.

AMY GOODMAN: That was Republican Governor Rick Snyder of Michigan. He’s expected to sign the controversial so-called right-to-work bill today.

Last Thursday, the Michigan House narrowly approved a measure that would ban the mandatory payment of union dues in the private sector. The Michigan State Senate also passed a separate measure curbing union fees. The vote was held over the raucous objections of union supporters and labor activists, some of whom were pepper-sprayed by police when they tried to storm the Senate chamber. Police took the unusual and controversial step of locking Capitol entrances and blocking citizens’ entry for several hours. At least eight demonstrators were arrested. Democratic senators walked out of the chamber in protest.

Meanwhile, Michigan Democratic State Representative Brandon Dillon of Grand Rapids delivered an impassioned speech accusing Republicans of steamrolling the legislation with no public input, no hearings, no opportunity for Democrats to offer amendments.

STATE REP. BRANDON DILLON: Why can’t you take this to the voters? Because you know what will happen. You’re doing this in lame duck because you know next session you won’t have the votes. This is an outrage. And anybody in this chamber who is going to vote for a bill that changes the precedent in this state of such consequence, without even allowing us to offer a real amendment, does not deserve to be here. Thank you.

AMY GOODMAN: That was Democratic State Representative Brandon Dillon of Grand Rapids, Michigan, who joins us now live from PBS studio WKAR in the state Capitol of Lansing.

Representative Brandon Dillon, welcome to Democracy Now! Explain how it is that this legislation moved forward. It didn’t always have Governor Snyder’s full support.

STATE REP. BRANDON DILLON: Well, first, Amy, thanks for having me on the show. And you’re absolutely right. For two years prior to this, after being elected in 2010, Governor Snyder campaigned and told people that he would govern as a moderate. He said that right to work was not on his agenda. And in fact, when the protests and issues were going on in Wisconsin and Ohio, Governor Snyder went out of his way to say that he didn’t want to govern in the divisive way that Scott Walker and John Kasich were.

Well, we fast-forward to after the election here, and with pressure from people like Dick DeVos of the Amway fortune, the Koch brothers and other right-wing CEOs who believe that the opportunity was here to push right to work, the governor caved and showed his true colors, that he’s not a moderate, he’s not a political agnostic, he’s a corporate CEO with an agenda to depress workers’ wages and make sure that the middle class has less power at the bargaining table.

AMY GOODMAN: How do you know these big-moneyed interests are involved that you talk about?

STATE REP. BRANDON DILLON: Well, for instance, they’ve begun running ads here in Michigan under the misnomer “Freedom to Work.” They’ve been—they’re being funded by Dick DeVos, who started an organization here in Michigan around 2007 with the express purpose of advancing right to work. His wife, Betsy DeVos, who was the former chair of the Michigan Republican Party, in 2004 penned a press release that said Michigan’s economic problems were largely due to the high wages that workers enjoy. This has been a coordinated effort from the DeVos family going back to 2004. They’ve been very outspoken in their support.

There were media reports that Mr. DeVos was calling around senators who didn’t want to vote for this and pressuring with primaries, and I suspect he did the same thing with the governor. The fact of the matter is, the governor had an opportunity to have his last two years as governor be one of bringing the state together; he’s decided to support the most divisive piece of legislation that’s ever come forward in Michigan. And you’ll see by the people gathering at the Capitol today that he’s tearing the state apart.

AMY GOODMAN: Betsy DeVos, the wife of Mr. DeVos, is the sister of Erik Prince, the founder of Blackwater. I wanted to go to one of those ads that you mentioned. A group called the Michigan Freedom Fund has launched a million-dollar TV ad campaign in favor of the right-to-work legislation, as you said. Here is one of the ads.

MICHIGAN FREEDOM FUND AD: Freedom, choice—we cherish it. There’s a plan to protect our freedom in Michigan. It’s called “Freedom to Work,” because joining a union—or not—should be your choice, and choosing not to join shouldn’t cost you your job. Freedom to Work will mean more jobs, making Michigan more attractive to new businesses. What won’t change? Collective bargaining remains a federally protected right. Tell Lansing, protect collective bargaining and support freedom to work.

AMY GOODMAN: Talk about this group and the effect these ads have had.

STATE REP. BRANDON DILLON: Well, it’s ironic that they use the word “freedom” in these ads, because the only thing that this gives freedom to is for corporate CEOs to depress workers’ wages. This isn’t about freedom to choose, and they—they know that. They know from their own polling that the more people know about this proposal, the less they like it. What they don’t tell you is that nobody has been forced to join a labor union in Michigan. It’s illegal under federal law. And in fact, if this right to work — or as my colleagues and I like to refer to it as “freedom to freeload” — passes, those that choose not to join a union and not to pay dues will still be given all the benefits that a union contract entails and all the protections that union representation has. The proponents of this legislation will not tell you that. They will not tell you that unions will still be bound to represent those people who choose not to participate in the union.

And for a party that talks about personal responsibility all the time, it seems strangely ironic that they’re promoting this idea of freeloading, because really what it’s about is what Betsy DeVos and her husband have said all along: They don’t like the fact that Michigan workers enjoy a higher standard of living than other states; they did not like high wages; they don’t like the fact that unions have some place at the bargaining table to advocate for their employees; they want to weaken the hand of unions; they want to depress wages; and they want to make it an economy where a shrinking middle class means more corporate profits.

AMY GOODMAN: Governor Snyder’s spokeswoman, Sara Wurfel, distinguished Snyder’s backing of the bill from Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker’s stance. In an email to the Huffington Post, she wrote: “This legislation does NOT change or end collective bargaining in Michigan. Michigan has a great history of collective bargaining, and Gov. Snyder is proud to point to his work to have successfully collectively bargained with state employees twice as governor,” she said. Your response?

STATE REP. BRANDON DILLON: Well, that’s good for him that he bargained with state employees. But I can suspect if the power of labor unions is weakened, the bargaining position of management, whether it’s at the state level or in the private sector, is going to be extremely stronger. It’s the whole point of right to work. Despite the nice commercials with the waving American flag and the eagle symbolizing American freedom, these are people who do not have the best interests of workers at heart. They know, by allowing people to free ride on a union contract, that it will diminish the power of the union and the bargaining unit to represent them. And ultimately, over the long term, we’ll see in Michigan what’s happened in other right-to-work states, where wages are lower, benefits are lower, child poverty rates are higher, illiteracy rates are higher. Workplace safety accidents skyrocket in right-to-work states. But one thing’s clear: Corporate profits and the top 1 percent will do better. And that’s really what this is about. This is not about worker freedom. This is not about collective bargaining. This is about breaking the backs of labor unions, who have historically in Michigan been able to lift up the middle class and provide a counterweight to corporate power.

AMY GOODMAN: Speaking on Fox News, Michigan Republican Governor Rick Snyder described right-to-work legislation as pro-worker legislation. This is what he said.

GOV. RICK SNYDER: People used to choose to join a union. Now, I don’t believe it’s appropriate to say, just to keep your job, you have to pay dues and be a union member. So, basically, this creates an environment where people can say they’re choosing to join a union because the union has put a value proposition to make it worthwhile, and if the union is not providing value, someone shouldn’t be forced to choose. So I view this as pro-worker legislation.

AMY GOODMAN: Representative Brandon Dillon, your response?

STATE REP. BRANDON DILLON: That’s the kind of Orwellian nonsense that you’re getting out of the Republicans these days. They’re pushing a law that is decisively anti-labor-union, anti-worker, and the only defense they can have is to come up with buzzwords like “freedom to work” and “pro-worker.” The fact of the matter is, the governor knows that what he’s pushing is decisive.

And the governor is also misinforming the public, because there is nobody that is forced to join a labor union in Michigan. It’s been illegal under federal law for decades. What they are required to do is, if they do enjoy the benefits of that contract, they have to pay a small fee to cover the cost of collectively bargaining that contract and also to be able to enjoy the representation if they get in trouble.

What the governor also won’t tell you is those that choose not to join a labor union in Michigan and not pay any dues or fees are still going to enjoy all the benefits of that union contract under this right-to-work proposal. And, you know, it’s very difficult. If you’re a consumer and you go to a store and you ask what the cost of a product is and what you’re going to get, and somebody tells you it’s $50, and then you say, “Well, what do I get if I don’t pay?” and they tell you you get the same thing, you know, basic human nature, you’re going to suspect that some people are going to take something they can get for free rather than paying for it.

AMY GOODMAN: Representative—

STATE REP. BRANDON DILLON: The governor knows that. The proponents of this know that. And they’re banking on, over the long term, enough people deciding to not pay and enjoy all the benefits to diminish the collective power of workers in the workplace.

AMY GOODMAN: Representative Dillon, this is not just a Democrat-versus-Republican issue. Four Republican state senators, six Republican state representatives broke with their party and sided with you, the Democrats, citing the way the legislation was expedited and the effect it could have on labor relations in the state of Michigan. Explain how this legislation happened and what that means to have Republican support for you.

STATE REP. BRANDON DILLON: Well, there were a few Republicans who crossed over and supported us. And when I was speaking on the floor last week, why I said they wouldn’t have the votes next session is because we elected five Democrats. Five Republican incumbents lost their seats in the November election. Had the vote been taken in January after the new Legislature’s sworn in, this would not pass. And they know that.

And what they also did throughout this process is put a nominal appropriation in the bill. The Michigan constitution does not allow any bill that has an appropriation in it to be subject to voter referendum. And this is a trick that they’ve been pulling in the Michigan Legislature lately to deny voters the right to weigh in on whether they ultimately want to have a law enacted. They’ve done that. They put this through without any committee hearings, no debate. The governor held a press conference at 11:00 last Thursday. By 3:00, we were voting on a bill that we’d never seen. We weren’t allowed to offer amendments. We weren’t even allowed to really speak to the bill. We were allowed to do a couple floor statements, and that was it, not any real debate. The governor said there would be thoughtful discussion on this, and apparently the only thoughtful discussion is when he’s on the phone with Dick DeVos and other billionaires who are pushing him to do this.

AMY GOODMAN: Representative Dillon, finally, the protests that are scheduled today, thousands coming into Lansing.

STATE REP. BRANDON DILLON: We’re expecting up to 10,000 people today. And, you know, I think most people understand that we’re probably not going to be successful in stopping the governor from signing this today. But I think it’s going to send a powerful message that what the governor and his friends in the Michigan Legislature have done have really awakened a sleeping giant, as the UAW President Bob King stated yesterday. There was an opportunity to bring labor and management together. Senator Carl Levin talked about the destructive impact this is going to have on labor management relations throughout Michigan. But one thing is for certain: They can try to silence people’s voices in the Legislature today, they can ignore the will of the voters from November in this last election, but they won’t be able to silence workers forever. And I think this is the beginning of a long and protracted labor fight that ultimately is going to be fought and won on behalf of the middle class.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Brandon Dillon, I want to thank you for being with us, Democratic state representative of Grand Rapids, Michigan, speaking to us from Lansing, where the protests are planned for today.


AMY GOODMAN: When we come back, we go to the streets of Egypt with Democracy Now!’s Sharif Abdel Kouddous. Stay with us.


AMY GOODMAN: “There Is Power in a Union,” Joe Hill’s labor anthem, performed by the late great Utah Phillips. To see our 2004 interview with Phillips, the legendary folk musician, labor organizer and peace activist, known as the “Golden Voice of the Great Southwest,” you can visit our website at

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