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10 years of Michigan being a Right to Work state: Why we could have prevented it if we used our collective power

December 11, 2022

This week marks the 10th anniversary of when a Right to Work policy was adopted by the GOP controlled Michigan legislature and then signed into law by former Governor Rick Snyder.

West Michigan’s role in pushing Right to Work for Michigan

Members of the Grand Rapids Power Structure played a significant role in helping to make Michigan a Right to Work state, something we should never forget. The West Michigan Policy Forum made Right to Work a priority since 2008, when the group grew out of the Grand Rapids Chamber of Commerce.

At their bi-annual Conference in 2012, the West Michigan Policy Forum ramped up their commitment to making Michigan a Right to Work state, with presenters from the Mackinac Center for Public Policy addressing the issue on September 11 of 2012, which GRIID wrote about. A few days later, at that same conference, the West Michigan Policy Forum had Rick Berman do a session on how to undermine labor unions. Berman is notorious for settling up anti-labor front groups as a strategy to not only undermine labor organizing efforts, but also function as a mechanism to win over public support for Right to Work policies. 

When Michigan became a Right to Work state in early December of 2012, GRIID also wrote about the role that the DeVos family played in making Right to Work a reality in Michigan. We pointed out that the DeVos family not only has had members sitting on the Board of Directors of the Mackinac Center for Public Policy (they were the main organization that had crafted the language Michigan used), they contributed millions to Mackinac, along with helping to found the West Michigan Policy Forum and making Right to Work a policy priority in the early years. MLive eventually acknowledged the role that the DeVos family played in an editorial they published 10 days after the GRIID article, but they gave the DeVos family spokesperson a great deal of space to defend the reasons why West Michigan’s most powerful family made Right to Work a priority. 

A Missed opportunity to stop Right to Work in Michigan

As expected, organized labor and other civil society groups became mobilized against Right to Work being imposed on workers in Michigan. On December 10th, about 100 people protested in the streets of Grand Rapids, making a stop in front of the Amway Grand Plaza, since workers were well aware of the role that the DeVos family played in forcing a Right to Work policy in Michigan. This march, however, was just a prelude to the march that would take place the very next day in Lansing. 

It was estimated that some 10,000 people, mostly workers, converged on the State Capitol in Lansing to protest the Right to Work policy that had been adopted. People began arriving as early as 6am, but by 9am there were thousands. Here is an excerpt of what GRIID wrote at that time:

By 9:00am there was an estimated 10,000 people in and around the state capitol demanding that Governor Snyder veto legislation that was voted on today, making anti-union Right to Work the official policy of the state.

Most of those attended the protest were union members, as was expected, with representation from the UAW, SEIU, electrical workers, steel workers, the MEA, the nurses union, public sector unions and the IWW.

Many roads were blocked off by the police, who were trying to make it difficult for folks to navigate downtown Lansing, but many unions bused in their members and took over the capitol lawn and the road out front with members holdings signs and inflated rats with Governor Snyder’s name on one and Dick DeVos’ name on another.

There were also over a thousand people inside the capitol, which had a large police presence, some in full riot gear, carry pepper spray and concussion grenades.

Unfortunately, most of the 10,000 people who came to demand that Snyder veto the Right to Work legislation, stayed outside listening to a selection of hand-picked speakers who emphasized the need to get a Democratic Party candidate elected in 2014. Michigan workers could have followed what Wisconsin workers did earlier that year, by occupying the Capitol to press their demands, even if it meant risking arrested. There were a few hundred people inside who had come to do just that and I was there with a contingent from Grand Rapids who were prepared to stay inside until the cops arrested us. Here again is what I wrote on GRIID about those of us who were inside the State Capitol: 

Those of us who sat down, then began to invite others who were inside the capitol as part of the protest. Our numbers grew and we moved out from the center to take over more space. At about 11:30am, we were all greeted by Rev. Jesse Jackson, Lansing Mayor Virg Bernero and Rep. Gretchen Whitmer.

Jackson made some very moving comments about the importance of this action and how so many working families have already gone over the “fiscal cliff.” After speaking Jackson sat down with the rest of us, along with Bernero and Whitmar, which brought even more excitement to the action.

However, in less than a minute, Jackson and the local politicians got up and wished us well. Many people took this as an insult and felt that if they really supported this action they would have stayed, considering we live in a society where having people like Jackson and elected officials will generally guarantee more media attention.

The occupation lasted for another hour or so, but it became apparent that not everyone was going to stay, even if it meant risking arrest. We also could not get more people to join us and the police presence continued to grow inside.

Some people who were wearing reflective vests and directing people inside all day, were members of unions, but more often than not acted as an extension of the cops, by constantly telling people to cooperate and getting into arguments with people who were doing civil disobedience.

Sadly, the State Capitol occupation numbers dwindled and eventually ended. People went back outside to listed to more speakers and embrace the electoral strategy, which might finally be able to reverse the Right to Work policy, but more than a decade later. 

The failure to get enough people to engage in Direct Action that day was clearly a missed opportunity to actually prevent Right to Work becoming a policy in Michigan. It was also a missed opportunity to demonstrate the power of Direct Action and collective organizing that likely would have shown people the real power that workers have if they engaged in Direct Action. 

A few days later, GRIID posted the first of a two part article entitled, Fighting Back in Michigan Part I: A Statewide Strategy. Part of that article read:

For decades the labor movement has been pumping millions of dollars into electoral politics instead of organizing in the workplace and building capacity amongst workers to have the skills to do radical politics.

Think about the $21.9 million dollars that was raised this year to push for Proposal 2. What if that amount of money was spent on paying people to become organizers, to provide resources to those doing organizing campaigns wherever workers wanted to organize? Workplace democracy is one of the strongest forms of democracy and can trump Right to Work laws. If businesses do not have compliant workers, they can’t make money.

Beyond spending the money on organizing, that kind of money could be used for mutual aid, providing resources like food, health care and housing to fellow workers and their families who are struggling to make it in this capitalist economy. Engaging in mutual aid will build solidarity, by demonstrating to people that we care about our working class brothers and sisters.

Now, detractors might suggest that the electoral strategy won this year, but such strategies on really win if they result is massive structural changes to policies that prioritize people above profits.

It should be easy for the Democrats to get rid of the Right to Work policy in Michigan, but they is very low hanging fruit. Getting rid of Right to Work should be followed by making the minimum wage in Michigan $25 an hour, which would be more of a livable wage, along with taxing the hell out of the rich to fund housing, education, health care and climate justice work that we can’t wait another decade for. We need to demand these things now, as I wrote in a 3 part series right after it was announced that the Democrats would control the State Legislature beginning in 2023.  Another World is Possible!!!

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