For as long as I can remember, organized labor has been a powerful – perhaps THE most powerful – influence in Michigan politics, most of all within the Democratic Party.
Especially in the southeast part of our state, nothing of political consequence happened for decades without the major unions signing off on it, or at the bare minimum, offering grudging acceptance.
Yet now, with Michigan still firmly in the grip of the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression, people appear increasingly disconnected from the usual political process and from their traditional designated leaders. Significantly, this includes union members and their families as well.
Three recent events offer considerable evidence of this.
First, Lt. Gov. John Cherry’s decision last week to withdraw from the race for governor. A skilled, experienced, able politician, Cherry was widely regarded as a near-cinch to win the Democratic nomination for governor, in large part because of his long and close association with organized labor.
In explaining his unexpected decision, Cherry discussed his inability to raise enough money to mount a serious campaign. There’s no doubt that money was a problem. Yet why did Cherry, the acknowledged front runner, have such trouble raising money? Sure, in economic times like these, there’s not a lot of extra cash floating around. And his long association with the unpopular Granholm administration didn’t help.
Most importantly, early polling showed Cherry running way behind most Republican candidates, in large part because many Democrats – including union members – were uncomfortable in supporting him. Even more felt he couldn’t win.
So you have organized labor’s designated favorite candidate essentially repudiated long before the election. In past years, this would have been unthinkable.
Second, Dave Bing was elected to a full four-year term as Mayor of Detroit, winning 58 percent of the vote in November despite being fiercely opposed by local public sector unions.
During his campaign, Bing made it clear the city simply could no longer afford to maintain its expensive contracts with the various municipal unions that have for years dominated Detroit politics. To Bing’s credit, he made his position absolutely clear.
The unions made their position equally firm in opposing him.
And they lost, big time.
I have not seen any detailed breakdown of the Detroit vote, but it seems clear that a fair number of the votes for Bing came from union families, despite what the union leadership had to say.
Third, the state legislature adopted sweeping school reforms last month designed to qualify Michigan for up to $400 million in federal “Race To The Top” education money. However, that act was in defiance of the wishes of Lansing’s politically powerful teachers union, the Michigan Education Association.
Indeed, when Governor Jennifer Granholm and State Superintendent Mike Flanagan announced a wide-ranging effort to reform Michigan schools, most insiders sniggered. But as time went on, public dissatisfaction with slow-motion school reform and drastic cuts in school funding mounted. Soon, it became clear that the MEA was in for a fight. And once the reform package was passed and signed by the Governor, Flanagan announced that local school boards and superintendents didn’t have to get local union presidents to sign on to Memoranda of Understanding. The MEA was “shocked and extremely dismayed,” said MEA President Iris Salter.
None of these three events would have been imaginable in years past. Together, they suggest the long, firm grip of organized labor on public policy and party politics in Michigan may be loosening.
Union bashers may be crowing. But that’s a short-sighted attitude. Organized labor and the vast number of working people in Michigan who are union members deserve now, more than ever, a seat at the table where far-sighted people are trying to figuring out how to reform and transform our troubled state.
One key statewide labor leader told me late last fall that, “organized labor is beginning to realize we can’t control everything. We’re starting to reach out – to the business community, to the Republicans – because we recognize that we cannot be isolated as the process of reform and restructuring goes on.”
He’s wise. I only hope he’s right — and that the business community and the GOP reach out to labor constituencies as well.
Editor’s Note: Former newspaper publisher and University of Michigan Regent Phil Power is a longtime observer of Michigan politics and economics and a former chairman of the Michigan chapter of the Nature Conservancy. He is also the founder and president of The Center for Michigan, a bipartisan centrist think-and-do tank which is sponsoring Michigan’s Defining Moment, a public engagement outreach campaign for citizens. The opinions expressed here are Power’s own and do not represent the official views of The Center. He welcomes your comments at firstname.lastname@example.org.