Two weeks ago, Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder dealt a stinging sucker punch to unions in America’s symbolic capital of labor by signing two controversial “right-to-work” bills that ban private- and public-sector unions from requiring workers to pay dues as a condition of employment.
In doing so, the Republican governor made Michigan the 24th state to approve such laws. But Michigan is unlike any other state. As home of the legendary United Auto Workers (UAW) and the fifth-largest union workforce in the country, Michigan represents by far the most significant victory for right-to-work advocates to date.
But Gov. Snyder may have overreached.
Before the ink was dry on House Bill 4003 and Senate Bill 116, more than 12,000 outraged Michiganders had amassed at the Statehouse in Lansing to protest the signing. Many felt betrayed by Snyder, who had said repeatedly that the divisive issue was not on his agenda, including during congressional testimony in February.
“Until last week the governor did not support right to work. He said we would have a thoughtful conversation. Yet legislation was passed without the minimum amount of conversation necessary,” charged Christopher Nulty, a spokesman for the labor-backed nonprofit We Are Michigan.
“He played the moderate. But he is not the moderate he claims to be,” said Nulty. “I think this will make it difficult for him in 2014.”
Recent polling suggests that Snyder’s popularity has plummeted since he signed the bills on Dec. 11, just hours after Republicans hustled the legislation to his desk at the end of the lame-duck session.
Even allies appear to be jumping ship.
The most visible example is the editorial board of the Detroit Free Press, which endorsed Snyder’s gubernatorial bid two years ago. In a scathing editorial, the state’s highest circulation daily blistered the governor over his ”right-to-work reversal.” Free Press editors slammed him for unleashing “a legislative blitzkrieg” they described as “disturbing,” “grotesquely disingenuous” and “dishonest.” They concluded, “Michigan voters who provided Snyder’s margin of victory in 2010 feel betrayed, and they have every justification.”
Not mentioned in the piece, however, or in any of the Free Press coverage of the debacle, is the fact that the Gannett-owned newspaper itself has been a right-to-work business for more than a decade already.
Status quo for Free Press
“It’s status quo for them,” said Lou Mleczko, president of the Detroit Newspaper Guild, Local 22, which represents Free Press employees in one of the Guild’s seven collective bargaining units. “The Detroit Free Press and the Detroit News [also owned by Gannett] have been living in right-to-work world since 2000,” explained Mleczko.
That was when a bitter five-and-half-year labor dispute came to an end. One of the conditions was that workers at the two papers were no longer required to pay for union representation – even though the Guild remains legally obliged to represent members and non-members alike.
According to Mleczko, while the union maintains majorities at both the Free Press and the Detroit News, ownership remains “openly hostile” to organized labor. Two years ago, during contract negotiations, Gannett shot down a proposal to reinstate the closed-shop rule that all employees pay for union representation. “They bitterly opposed it,” said Mleczko. “I wish Free Press management would share the opinion of the editorial board,” he added.
Currently the paper and the union are back at the bargaining table. But right to work won’t be on it this time around.
Given this context, two Free Press veterans now with other news organizations recently questioned the intellectual honesty of right-to-work coverage by their former paper.
“Is it grotesquely disingenuous, simply disingenuous, hypocritical or just plain curious that the paper that excoriated the governor for seeking to give Michigan workers the freedom to choose whether to join a union gives its own employees the right to choose whether to join a union?” asked long-time Free Press reporter and columnist Bill McGraw in an op-ed for online newspaper Deadline Detroit.
McGraw, who worked at the Free Press until 2009, first experienced the paper as a closed union shop and then witnessed its transformation into an open one. “When the Free Press operated as a closed shop, there was pretty much a state of détente between the union and the company. Grievances were rare, benefits were good and employees got overtime when they worked extra hours.” Now he says, “Due to the presence of the free riders, there can be tension, mostly unspoken, between Guild members and non-Guild members at the paper.”
Fox2’s M.L. Elrick, another ex-Free Press reporter, took umbrage with the paper’s right-to-work coverage in a heated Facebook post and exchange with former colleagues. A union leader while at the Free Press, Elrick bashed one of the paper’s current columnists – Brian Dickerson – for opposing the right-to-work bills but being a free rider “more than happy to let my family pay for the benefits your family enjoyed.” In a long-winded response, Dickerson refuted that his opposition to the right-to-work bills and his personal conduct were in contradiction.
But Michigan, like the Free Press, may be in for more contradiction and tension in the years to come.