Growing and strengthening west Michigan's middle class
GRAND RAPIDS December 22, 2016– Every December, legislators in Lansing scramble to pass bills before heading home for the holidays (or leaving office). Since the Republicans have had control of both houses of the legislature, many of the bills have targeted working families and unions (remember right-to-work in 2012?).
This year, organized labor was ready for the fight. Union members and their family members, from West Michigan and across the state, peppered their legislators with letters, phone calls, emails, a protest at the capitol, a petition, and face-to-face conversations. The result? An overwhelming defeat of legislation that would’ve hurt teachers, nurses, firefighters, police, retirees, minority and senior voters, union members and more. Michigan AFL-CIO President Ron Bieber wrote a guest column for the progressive blog Eclectablog outlining some of our successes in lame duck.
Led by the billionaire DeVos family, Republicans in the legislature were ready to push through a 2016 lame duck agenda that was absolutely terrible for working people. They sought to:
- Eliminate pensions for new Michigan teachers and school employees, forcing billions in cuts to local schools.
- Cut health care benefits for retired police officers and firefighters, forcing them to pay more out-of-pocket due to the dangerous nature of their jobs.
- Slash over $400 million per year from the school aid fund to help pay for more corporate tax breaks.
- Ban unions from representing school employees, bus drivers, and nurses during normal business hours.
- Undermine the First Amendment rights of working people to speak up together at public demonstrations against employers that deny pay, cut wages, and send jobs overseas.
- Allow politicians to raise unlimited political contributions from billionaires and corporations for their political Super PACs.
- Create new barriers to voting that make it harder for senior citizens and people of color to vote in Michigan elections.
These bills all posed a very serious threat to collective bargaining, free speech, and the right to vote – and they all shared one overarching goal: to rig the economy to favor Republicans’ wealthy corporate campaign donors at the expense of regular working people.
How labor fought back and won
To fight back, a broad coalition of unions was formed to organize an aggressive lame duck strategy.
For three straight weeks, lawmakers were bombarded with targeted messages everywhere we could reach them. Hundreds of frontline workers held face-to-face meetings with their lawmakers in Lansing. Volunteers made thousands of phone calls into legislators’ offices, routinely filling voicemail inboxes. Hundreds of handwritten letters were collected and delivered, along with a petition that received over 25,000 signatures.
After weeks of hard work that included a large rally of police officers and firefighters in freezing temperatures on the capitol lawn, the legislature finally adjourned last Thursday without passing any of the bills we fought to defeat.
Even better, we were able to pass important legislation that had strong support from Michigan’s unions, including: a bipartisan energy reform package that protects jobs and ensures safe and reliable energy; bills that lay the groundwork for new veterans homes to be built, and ensure a well-trained and professional workforce to care for our veterans; and legislation that ends the state’s so-called unemployment “robofraud,” which will help job seekers support their families while they get back on their feet.
None of this was easy. Beating bad legislation is tough enough with Republicans in total control of state government, but passing bipartisan legislation is just as hard.
It required unions that don’t often collaborate on legislative issues to lock arms and work together every single day. It required union leaders and rank-and-file members to remain hyper-focused on the most pressing issues, while still being adaptable in a fast-moving environment at the state capitol. And it required constant pressure on legislators.
Bieber admits this is only a temporary fix, however. The fight will continue in the new year, as both Gov. Snyder and Republican lawmakers have vowed to take these bills up again. We also now have an anti-labor president and Congress to contend with.
Republican politicians including our new president, members of congress, and the legislature will keep working to rig the rules of our economy to favor their billionaire corporate donors at the expense of working people.
That’s why we as progressives can’t afford to waste any time or energy fighting amongst ourselves.
If we want to build an economy that works for all of us, then the lesson we need to learn is that our strength lies in our solidarity. Because when we work together, when we stand up and fight together, and when we have each others’ backs, there is no one who can stop us.