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Michigan Right to Work Battle Could Cost Labor Political Clout

Organized labor, which helped re-elect President Barack Obama last month, faces a historic defeat in Michigan, a cradle of the union movement, where the president will visit a suburban Detroit auto plant today.

As Obama speaks to United Auto Workers members at Daimler AG’s Detroit Diesel, Republicans at the state capital will be putting the final touches on so-called right-to-work measures that would prohibit compulsory payment of union dues, the financial muscle behind labor’s political power.

Michigan is like other industrial states where union clout has diminished along with its membership, said Marick Masters, the director of labor studies at Wayne State University in Detroit. About 17 percent of Michigan’s workforce belonged to unions in 2011, down from 40 percent in the early 1960s, he said.

“Unions depend on their money from dues for a variety of election activities, and the less money they have to do that, the less influence they have,” Masters said. “The recent election shows if you want to play the game, it takes money. The less you have, the less your voice will be heard.”

Labor organizations spent more than $188 million from January 2011 until October 2012 on federal-level political races, including contributions and television and radio advertising, Federal Election Commission data show.

In Michigan, unions financed most of an unsuccessful $23.4 million campaign to enshrine collective bargaining rights in the state constitution. Business groups and others spent more than $35 million opposing it.

Political Disagreement

Some union members disagree with political activities and wouldn’t pay dues if given the choice, said Terry Bowman, a UAW member and founder of Union Conservatives, which supports right-to-work laws.

“There’s a lot of discontent all over Michigan, and not just in the UAW,” Bowman said.

Michigan Governor Rick Snyder, a Republican who had sidestepped the right-to-work issue since taking office last year, led a push for the legislation last week. Obama said he opposed the legislation in a White House statement issued as lawmakers voted on the bills.

Michigan would be the 24th state to make paying union dues voluntary. Indiana did the same in February.

In the home state of the UAW and the Big 3 automakers -- General Motors Co., Ford Motor Co. and Chrysler Group LLC -- the right-to-work drive spurred hundreds of union backers to demonstrate at the Capitol in Lansing last week. Larger protests are planned, said Sara Wallenfang, a spokeswoman for the Michigan AFL-CIO, based in Lansing.

Governor’s Signature

Lawmakers may send Snyder the bills to sign into law as early as tomorrow. The legislation would prohibit compulsory union dues for public and private employees covered by bargaining units. Existing union contracts wouldn’t be affected, and police and firefighters would be exempt.

“These bills are a blatant attempt by the richest in Michigan to silence the voices of working families in our democracy,” Wallenfang said.

Labor plays a significant role in U.S. politics. The tally of union contributions in the presidential race doesn’t reflect the hundreds of thousands of union members who fanned out across battleground states like Ohio to urge people to vote for Obama and other Democratic candidates.

The Service Employees International Union and the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees together spent more than $48 million on direct election activities, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, a Washington-based group that tracks political spending.

Michigan’s push for right-to-work is a “sad day in America” and cause for concern, given the state’s historic role in the labor movement, said Stephen Madarasz, a spokesman for the Civil Service Employees Association, New York state’s biggest public-worker union.

“We have a great deal of concern about an extremist agenda to undermine working people in this country,” Madarasz said.

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