Beth Cox works at the Ford Motor Co. plant in Dearborn, Michigan, where her grandfather was a mechanic and a United Auto Workers official.
“I went to labor parades since I was 6,” said the 42-year-old. Now she’s working for a ballot proposal to guarantee the collective-bargaining rights her family has enjoyed for three generations, and to ban laws like the one Indiana adopted in February that allow workers to avoid paying union dues.
Cox and the petition drive are part of a Midwest resistance against anti-union laws that may help Democratic President Barack Obama win battleground states in November. The uprising began in 2011 when Republican Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker pushed to eliminate collective bargaining for most public employees -- a measure that prompted a June 5 recall election that’s become the epicenter of the strife.
Ohio voters repealed a similar law championed by Republican Governor John Kasich in November. Now, Michigan’s Democratic base is trying to reverse what it calls attacks by Republicans meant to erode its union support. The proposed ballot measure would block or unravel laws that curb health care and pension benefits for public employees, constrain bargaining and allow financially distressed cities and school districts to cancel contracts.
“This shows I have a voice,” said Cox, who said she has collected 100 petition signatures to put the constitutional amendment to a vote. She’s among volunteers on whom organizers - - led by Michigan’s largest unions -- are counting to amass 322,609 names by July to win a spot on the Nov. 6 ballot.
Locked in Combat
Republicans in Michigan, Ohio and Wisconsin seized control from Democrats in 2010, winning gubernatorial races and legislative majorities. In 2012, Indiana Republicans enacted the first so-called right-to-work law in a northern industrial state. Such measures prohibit union membership or payment of dues as a condition of employment.
Michigan Representative Mike Shirkey, a Republican, is waiting to introduce right-to-work legislation. Shirkey said he believes Snyder would sign it into law, though the governor has spoken against such measures.
About 58 percent of Michigan voters support such a measure, according to a March poll by Lansing-based Marketing Resource Group.
Make or Break
Battles over collective bargaining are the result of right-wing dogma, said Mark Schauer, former Democratic congressman from Michigan and a board member of American Rights at Work, a Washington-based nonprofit that advocates collective bargaining.
“It’s partly about undermining the partnership that exists between labor and management, but it’s mostly bare-knuckled politics that will hurt the middle class,” Schauer said in an e-mail. “The irony is that in Michigan, the comeback of the auto industry and the state’s economy are a direct result of labor and management working together.”
The Midwest union battles demonstrate labor’s erosion of influence in the past 30 years, said William Jones, a labor historian at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Wisconsin’s recall, in which Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett will face Walker, is a bellwether for the November presidential election, he said.
“Whoever wins this is really going to be galvanized,” Jones said.
The Wisconsin recall and the Michigan ballot issue may rally support for Obama, said John Russo, a labor-studies professor at Youngstown State University in Ohio.
Michigan, Ohio and Wisconsin account for 44 electoral votes and are among 12 swing states that may determine this year’s presidential race, according to a USA Today/Gallup tracking poll. The race is a virtual tie among those states between Obama and presumptive Republican nominee Mitt Romney, according to poll of registered voters conducted April 26-May 2.
All three states have suffered declines in economic health during the past four years, according to Bloomberg Economic Evaluation of States data.
Like the tumult in Wisconsin, Michigan’s union-backed ballot issue could become a national test of clout, with business interests from around the U.S. fighting it, said Rich Studley, president of the Michigan Chamber of Commerce. He said the ballot drive, announced in February in Washington by UAW president Bob King, would cement expensive, job-killing provisions in a state that lost 860,000 jobs from 2000 to 2009.
“This is a bizarre, extreme overreaction to Indiana becoming a right-to-work state,” said Rich Studley, president of the Michigan Chamber of Commerce. “If they can ban right-to-work in Michigan, they’ll try it in other states.”
Enter the Kochs
Both Kasich and Snyder have said their states aren’t ready for pitched battles over right-to-work. Still, the Tea Party-backed Ohioans for Workplace Freedom is seeking the 385,253 signatures to put a right-to-work constitutional amendment on the Ohio ballot.
Meanwhile, if Wisconsin’s Walker is recalled, “it will pour gas on the fire here in Michigan,” Studley said.
Opponents in Michigan already include the Americans for Prosperity, founded by billionaire brothers Charles and David Koch. Americans for Prosperity backed a $6 million television ad campaign against Obama that began in January.
Michigan’s ballot campaign is the first time that unions have sought a pre-emptive ban against right-to-work laws, said Scott Hagerstrom, director of Americans for Prosperity Michigan in Lansing.
“It would reverse a lot of great proposals that have passed the Legislature and the governor signed that protect taxpayers and right the financial ship of the state,” Hagerstrom said.
Unions supporting the effort -- called Protect Our Jobs -- include the Michigan Education Association, Michigan AFL-CIO and the Teamsters, said campaign spokesman Dan Lijana. He wouldn’t divulge funding, saying the campaign has grassroots support. The UAW represents about 17,000 state employees in Michigan.
Michigan does not require the ballot campaign or its opponents to file spending reports until after the issue is approved or rejected for a November vote. The campaign might cost as much as $20 million, said Rich Robinson, director of the nonpartisan Michigan Campaign Finance Network in Lansing, which tracks spending.
On May 7, cable-television ads were begun in Michigan and five other states labeling teachers unions as self-serving “bullies” that harm schools. The campaign by the Washington-based State Government Leadership Foundation will cost “in the low-six figures,” said Sarah Lenti, a spokeswoman. The other states are New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, New Mexico and Illinois.
The Protect Our Jobs initiative banks on substantial union membership. Michigan unions represented 18.3 percent of the work force according to a 2011 U.S. Department of Labor report, compared with 11.8 percent nationwide.
Still that doesn’t mean a slam dunk for the Michigan campaign because 34 percent of the state’s union members are Republican, said Bernie Porn of EPIC/MRA, an independent polling firm in Lansing.
The Protect Our Jobs campaign stems from organized labor’s increasing distrust of Republican Governor Rick Snyder, said Bill Ballenger, publisher of Lansing-based Inside Michigan Politics.
He said Snyder has cultivated a nonconfrontational style distinct from the more combative Walker and Kasich, yet he has signed legislation that unions view as hostile.
“Labor isn’t buying his sweet-talk act anymore,” Ballenger said.
The ballot initiative is “an arms race” between organized labor and Republicans, said Dennis Muchmore, Governor Snyder’s chief of staff.
“This takes us back,” Muchmore said of the ballot campaign. “It’s hard for the middle ground to get a fair discussion. The minute you get to middle ground, one side or the other takes a step or reacts.”