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Michigan a Key Battleground for Labor Rights with Votes on Emergency Managers, Collective Bargaining

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Michigan voters will be asked in November to decide the future of a controversial state law that allows the governor to appoint an unelected emergency manager or corporation to take over financially distressed towns and cities and effectively fire elected officials. The law, which is now on hold, empowers unelected managers or corporations to take over cities and effectively fire elected officials. In addition, another initiative on the Michigan ballot in November aims to enshrine collective bargaining rights in the state constitution to stave off future attacks on unions. We’re joined by Paul Abowd, an investigative reporter at the Center for Public Integrity. [includes rush transcript]

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

AMY GOODMAN: We’re broadcasting from Grand Valley State University in Grand Rapids, Michigan, from the PBS station WGVU.

Voters here in Michigan will be asked in November to decide the future of a controversial state law that allows the governor to appoint an unelected emergency manager or corporation to take over financially distressed towns and cities and effectively fire elected officials. The law, which is now on hold, empowers unelected managers to sell off public property, shred union contracts, privatize government services, without any input from local voters. Critics have described it as Michigan’s “local dictators” law.

In addition, another initiative on the Michigan ballot in November aims to enshrine collective bargaining rights in the state constitution to stave off future attacks on unions. Analysts say Michigan could be pivotal in the national fight over the future of the worker rights, and labor-backed groups are spending millions on ads like this one, in which an auto worker discusses the importance of collective bargaining.

STACIE STEWARD: This plant was on the death list. Now we’ve added a shift, and we’re expanding. Our industry is coming back, and we are fighting for our future. We’re making vehicles better than ever, bringing jobs back to America from Mexico. We have paid the government ahead of schedule. We have all pulled together in tough times. Collective bargaining is what got us here, management and workers negotiating. It’s not just about my job, it’s about this plant, this whole community. Protect collective bargaining; vote yes.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, for more on the Michigan ballot initiatives, we’re joined in Washington, D.C., by Paul Abowd, investigative reporter at the Center for Public Integrity. He has been following this story closely. Earlier this year, he wrote a piece called “Michigan’s Budget Crisis Puts Democracy on the Chopping Block.” He is originally from here in Michigan, from Detroit, where he reported for Labor Notes magazine and co-produced a documentary about public housing in the city, which premiered April 2012.

Welcome, Paul, to Democracy Now! Talk about these laws, these votes that will be taking place in November.

PAUL ABOWD: Good morning, Amy.

Well, these are two pretty monumental votes coming before Michigan residents in November. They both come after really drawn-out legal battles to even place them on the ballot. Both are really—the first one is an effort to repeal the emergency manager law, as you mentioned, and has had strong union support and mobilization, but also mobilization and support from a vast coalition of Michigan residents.

The second one is a more offensive—it’s a representation of the union movement going on the offense, I should say. Some people think it’s offensive, including folks in the Chamber of Commerce who are opposing it. But it’s a response to sort of the regional attack, since 2010, on the labor movement and on their fundamental right to collective bargaining, which we’ve seen in Wisconsin with the whole Walker recall and budget bill debacle; a similar bill which was repealed after strong union mobilization in Ohio; and the appearance for the first time in the industrial or post-industrial, depending on how you see it, Midwest of a right-to-work bill in Indiana; and then in Michigan, with the most expansive sort of attack, in many ways, on not just collective bargaining, but on voting rights and democratic rights on the local level through this emergency manager law.

And so, we’re seeing a response, a coordinated response, from state unions as well as national unions to get these—first to fight the legal battle to get these initiatives on the ballot, and now we’re seeing a pretty sustained air war to convince voters that they’re good for the state.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to talk about this bill that could replace an elected mayor, for example, with a corporation. Explain exactly how it came about, who’s behind it, and how it is being carried out, how it is being put into effect throughout Michigan.

PAUL ABOWD: Sure. Yeah, I mean, this is the product of a lot of different forces in the state, including a free market think tank called the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, which has pushed laws like the emergency manager law for several years. The original emergency manager law goes back decades in the state to 1990, to give you a sense of the scope of the economic crisis in the state. It’s decades-long, and politicians have been trying to position themselves as reformers and rescuers of the economic situation in the state for decades. So it’s not a new—this is not a new idea in the state, although when the Republicans took over the legislature in 2010 and the Governor Snyder took over the governor’s mansion the same year, we saw an intensified push, which included the passage of Public Act 4, which was an intensified version of an earlier law, which basically gave the governor, as you said in the intro, the power to elect one person as sort of financial czar to dismiss elected officials and, importantly, to shred collective bargaining agreements on the city level.

But the origins of the law and those pushing for it are sort of connected to a nationwide network of right-wing free market think tanks, including the Mackinac Center. Five years before the law was passed, the Mackinac Center released an editorial calling for four improvements to the original emergency law, including the power to shred collective bargaining agreements. All four of those recommendations were put into the law in 2011 that passed shortly after Snyder took office. There are connections to nationwide groups like ALEC. The Mackinac Center is a member of the American Legislative Exchange Council, which is sort of a clearing house for corporate lawmaking, where corporate representatives and lobbyists meet with state legislators and craft laws that then get replicated throughout the country. Representatives—legislators and representatives from Mackinac Center have gone to ALEC meetings and, in many cases, have exported pieces of anti-union legislation into ALEC, where they will now become model legislation and replicate throughout different statehouses across the country.

AMY GOODMAN: And just to be clear, for our listeners and viewers who are not familiar with ALEC, the American Legislative Exchange Council, Paul?

PAUL ABOWD: Well, it’s a—it’s a network, really, of state legislators and corporate lobbyists who meet three times a year, I believe, at hotels, and they have closed-door meetings, whereby corporate representatives, members of free market think tanks and state legislators get together and actually craft the language of a whole variety of bills, including—you know, they’re most famous this year for the Stand Your Ground laws, which popped up in Florida and all throughout the South, which were tied to the Trayvon Martin killing, and also the spate of voter ID and voter suppression laws that have spread throughout the country. Those laws came out of these meetings that ALEC, which is this sort of laboratory for corporate legislation—and there are very powerful players in Michigan, through the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, and also state legislators who have taken part in that process and who have taken some of the lessons from ALEC and put them back into the legislature, but also exported some of the, quote-unquote, “innovations” regarding public sector employees and collective bargaining, and taken them to the national stage, where they sort of have replicated into other statehouses.

AMY GOODMAN: Paul, I wanted to play a video produced by the Mackinac Center, which is part of this network of state-based groups, as you describe, associated with the Heritage Foundation, the influential right-wing think tank in Washington. In this clip provided to the media, Mackinac Center analyst Dan Armstrong gives his interpretation of Michigan’s “Protect Our Jobs” amendment.

DAN ARMSTRONG: Supporters say the Protect Our Jobs amendment would help working families by enshrining unions’ collective bargaining power in the state constitution. But most workers are employed in the private economy, which is covered by federal law. So, in reality, the amendment involves the 3 percent of Michigan residents who are government employees, and it would provide special powers to their unions. It would give government unions the power to bargain away laws passed by our elected representatives. It would make collective bargaining contracts—agreements settled behind closed doors—the law of the land. It would throw out cost savings legislation like requiring public employees to pay part of their own pension and healthcare benefits. In other words, the amendment would provide special protection for the few, pave the way to increase taxpayer costs, and give special powers to government unions.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s produced by the Mackinac Center. Paul Abowd, your response?

PAUL ABOWD: Well, it’s not surprising. It’s a classic tactic amongst the business elite anywhere in the country when it comes to unions, union initiatives to protect bargaining rights or to expand the power of their membership. The ironic thing really is that these ads run by the Mackinac Center and by the Chamber of Commerce in the state, they’re representative of this sort of very small—the 1 percent, if you will. On the anniversary of the Occupy movement, we can use that term. They’re representative of a very small segment of the state’s population. And so, they are continually leveling a charge that the union movement represents this special interest, when in fact the irony is clear: they represent a very small fraction of the community, and they represent their own sort of corporate interests.

The video itself is actually misleading, because the Protect Our Jobs initiative, which would make it a constitutional right—it would make collective bargaining a constitutional right in the state—applies to all workers, not just public sector unions or—yeah, not just public sector employees. It’s actually an attempt—it would be the first constitutional amendment of its type in the nation, in that it would effectively forestall right-to-work law in the state before anyone could propose it. And so, it’s sort of a forward-looking measure by the union movement to protect a fundamental right. And at the end of the day, as you’ll see from the Protect Our Jobs ads, the argument is that collective bargaining is not just serving the needs and interests of D.C. union bosses or even just the interests of union members, but that collective bargaining is a form of democratic expression that can be used to put forward a vision for how workplaces are shaped.

And in the case of the school system, as we’re seeing in Chicago with the teachers’ strike, collective bargaining can be used as a way to really put forward a positive vision for what a school should look like. In Detroit, because the public schools have been under emergency financial management, the manager, Roy Roberts, imposed a contract this summer, which—on teachers, because they had no bargaining power—which included not just a 10 percent wage cut for teachers, but also a drastic rise in class sizes. So, the argument that the union movement is making for this constitutional amendment is that collective bargaining affects not just the workplace, but can affect schools, can affect society at large, and can have a positive impact—


PAUL ABOWD: —on people who are not union members.

AMY GOODMAN: Paul Abowd, I want to thank you very much for being with us, investigative reporter at the Center for Public Integrity. He’s from there; I’m from the East Coast. Paul is actually speaking to us from Washington, D.C., and we’re broadcasting from Grand Rapids, Michigan. We’re on a 100-city tour around the country. This is Democracy Now! When we come back, we’re staying right here in Grand Rapids with Marcy Wheeler. Stay with us.

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