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Tom Watkins

Tom Watkins

Mirror, Mirror


January 11, 2013

It has been a few weeks since the extremely acrimonious Right To Work ( RTW) legislation was jammed through the lame duck Michigan legislative session with greased lightening speed.

Organized labor and Democratic party leaders have vilified Governor Snyder’s “gang of anti labor, anti worker, death to the middle class” GOP brethren in the legislature as a group of “grinches who stole the livelihood from workers across the great state of Michigan.”

Clearly the process used to fast track this legislation was not pretty, typical, and from a labor perspective – “fair.” Yet, since when is having something politically shoved up, or down, an orifice “fair?”

It certainly reinforced the old saying that “you don’t want to watch sausage or laws being made.”

There have been a multitude of editorials written criticizing Governor Nerd for his reversal on this issue – from “not on my agenda” to supporting and signing the historical legislation in lickety-split speed. Yet, like it or not, when the RTW dike broke, the Gov chose sides and led.

There are many fingers (some index, some other) pointed at the governor and, to steal a term from President George W. Bush, his band of “evil doers” in the legislature.

The governor denies RTW is “union busting” even putting a new label on an old jar saying, “I disagree with anyone who calls “Freedom to Work” “union busting.”

Clearly, union leaders believe the “Right to Work” (for less) or “Freedom to Work” (without paying union dues) legislation signed into law by Governor Rick Snyder has nothing to do with helping Michigan’s workers and everything to do with pay-backs for having the audacity to defy the governor and pushing Proposal 2 (and losing) to enshrine labor rights in the Michigan Constitution.

Yet, it needs to be asked, would it had been a better bet to spend the estimated $30 million labor invested in Proposal 2 and spent it instead to try to take control of the Michigan House of Representatives?

Not to be forgotten: the Dems also targeted Speaker of the House Jase Bolger for elimination in the last election. He survived everything the Dems and labor threw at him and returned to the State Capitol and led the RTW charge.

There is an old saying, if you are going to attempt to kill the king, don’t miss.

In spite of what the governor says, organized labor fears this legislation will weaken workers rights, union negotiating strength, and the ability to collect dues, ultimately weakening their political muscle.

Laying Blame
Big Labor must accept some responsibility for where Michigan stands today — both good and bad.

Like many Americans, I appreciate what unions have done to raise wages and standard of living for all American workers, regardless if they belonged to unions or not.

Yet, with Republicans in full control of state government, labor’s failed ballot initiative strategy and the failed attempt to defeat the Republican Speaker was in hind-sight as foolish as bringing a knife to a gun fight. To steal a line from Michigan’s former Democratic governor –they “Were blown away.”

UAW President Bob King, a decent man that if cut would bleed social justice, took a necessary first step towards recovery when he told Daniel Howes in a Detroit News column: “Did we make some mistakes on Prop 2? Yes, we did. We did it because of broader concerns for the labor movement”.

Yet, labor and the Dem poobahs would be doing themselves a great disservice if they don’t hit pause and do some deeper soul searching on what went wrong to bring about this unthinkable day in the birthplace of organized labor.

The world is changing in a rapid and disruptive fashion. No organization that wishes to flourish, can behave as nothing has changed when everything has changed. Just ask Mitt Romney and the national GOP.

Some of my labor and Democratic friends whom I raised this issue with, perhaps too soon after the lame duck beating when emotions ran high and nerves raw, responded, “You are blaming the victim!” “It is not US it is THEM!”

That is my point: simply seeing Democrats and labor as “victims” of the mean spirited, nasty 1 percent loving, anti 47 percent, is at a minimum misinterpreting the complete political milieu in which we exist and make them tone deaf to perceptions outside the union and Democratic party bubble . Perhaps more importantly, it may prevent them from devising effective tactics and strategies to be able to govern as majority party again.

By simply blaming the Republicans and the moderate Snyder in wolf’s clothing, they are only seeing part of the problem. The Michigan Democratic Party and labor (you can’t insert a razor blade between the two) are misreading an opportunity to spend a few moments looking in the mirror to reflect on what they have done to bring themselves to this point as well.

The Siamese-twins, Michigan Democratic Party and labor, need to do more than a simple post-mortem of how they got screwed by the Republicans and blaming all their ills on them. That is the lazy man’s analysis and will likely result in a prescription that will not position the Democratic Party and its candidates to compete in the future.

A losing coach does not amass a winning record by blaming the other team. The Democratic team must be in shape, develop a strategy/plan, execute it with precision and in some cases, have luck on their side.

Sure, there will be court challenges to RTW, recall efforts against preceived vulnerable Republican House, Senate members and perhaps even against the governor himself. Even if they are successful in recalling a couple of Republican legislators, Republicans will still control both chambers and the governor’s office, not to mention the State Supreme Court for the next two years.

The Race Is On
Clearly, there are many Democratic governor wannabes that are sharpening their rhetoric to slay the Nerd in Chief come 2014. See: Whacking the Bee Hive: Will Snyder Be Stung? DomeMagazine.com

RTW is a good recruiting and organizing tool for labor. Karla Swift, Michigan state president of the AFL-CIO, says the faith community, labor community and progressives are now organized into the “We Are Michigan,” a coalition of Michiganians who are ready to work together to “fight back against Snyder’s attacks on working people.” Swift says their message is focused and clear: “Snyder’s Michigan is not what we will stand for.”

She continues, “Michigan voters have the last word when it comes to public policy –and we’ve just begun to raise our voices.”

Time will tell if the coalition will hold together and produce a majority vote to turn out Governor Snyder and other Republicans in 2014. All of these activities are to be expected and may be successful or act simply as a gnat to bug the hell out of the Republicans and put them on the defensive for a couple of years.

Yet, what if? What if the court challenges fail, the recalls never catch on and fizzle, the economy picks up, memories are short and Governor Snyder and his Republican merry men in the House and Senate are returned to office in 2014? Then what?

Clearly, this is not a scenario Democratic and labor leaders want to contemplate — but should.

No, the Democrats and labor should not retreat from their historical mantle of being the party of the working person. Yet, how it is articulated, marketed and portrayed clearly needs some updating.

Union membership makes up less than 18 percent of the Michigan workforce. There are many other working people that do not see (right or wrong) that they have benefited from organized labor.

Given the Great Recession, many in the private sector, average workers, are resentful of the pay, benefits and pensions collected by unionized workers in local and state government. This anger is amplified with the constant drumbeat of abuses and perceived Cadillac health care and pension benefits in local government, particularly in Detroit and Wayne County.

It does not help, when Chrysler workers who were caught on film drinking and smoking dope during work hours were initially fired and then reinstated with the help of their union. Like it or not, these stories feed into a negative narrative some hold about unions.

Perhaps state Democratic and labor leaders would benefit from the thoughts of historian Will Durant who observed, “A great civilization is not conquered from without until it has destroyed itself from within.”

So, Dems and labor, if all you do is lash out at the governor and Republicans, you may come up short in accomplishing your ultimate goal to regain power and truly stand up not simply against the Republicans but for the working people of this state. Denial, delusion, and diversion does not a party make.

Perception is reality. Unfortunately, it is perceived by many that much of what labor has done to improve workers and Americans lives is a distant memory, if known at all.

Republicans Don’t Smirk
The Republicans, for their part, best be careful as they dance on the grave of organized labor, as labor is likely to rise from the dead.

Failed 2006 billionaire gubernatorial candidate Dick Devos, who many speculate was the big money behind the scene in the last minute RTW legislative push buying radio and TV time to educate or obfuscate, depending on your position, is taking media victory laps over the passage of RTW. Devos is just the symbol Dems need to to keep their base motivated. It may be impossible for the Republican Party, the party Devos helps to underwrite, to give him the hook, but they ought to, as he surely will be a irritant reminder, more toxic than Gov Snyder and a lightening rod for Dems come 2014.

See: Success on right-to-work could attract Dick DeVos back to politics

DeVos: Move past anger and keep rebuilding Michigan

Greg McNeilly who managed the 2006 gubernatorial campaign of Amway heir Dick DeVos and is employed by a DeVos family company is leading the anti labor “Michigan Freedom Fund.”

The Michigan Freedom Fund has run pro RTW commercials and will likely spend millions more to protect Governor Snyder and pro RTW legislators between now and the elections in 2014.

The battle has just begun.

Ralph Reed, a longtime Republican lobbyist and onetime leader of the Christian Coalition made this comment in a recent New York Times article about his party and it has relevance for Democrats as well, “The Republican Party can’t stay exactly where it is and stick its head in the sand and ignore the fact that the country is changing.”

Go ahead, both parties, shoot the messenger if you like. A little self reflection can be illuminating.

Tom Watkins has been a participant observer of Michigan’s political scene for over 30 years. He has served in top positions in state government including deputy chief of staff in the governors office, state superintendent and mental health director. He was an elected member of the Wayne County Charter Commission. He can be reached at: tdwatkins88@gmail.com

January 10, 2013 · Filed under Tom Watkins

17 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Ken Beedle // Jan 11, 2013 at 8:57 am

    Well-written and gives me pause. Whatever the result of the legal battles that will ensue, one thing must be remembered: the end result of wages driven by unions was the destruction of the American factory and the workers it employed.

  • 2 Warren E. Goodell // Jan 11, 2013 at 10:27 am

    The first party that understands that Michigan’s huge moderate and independent voter pool puts good government before policy is likely to be in power for a long time.

    If the Democrats don’t establish a separate identity from the unions – or the Republicans from the religious right – Michigan will soon see a moderate third party emerge and take control.

  • 3 Jon // Jan 11, 2013 at 2:50 pm

    Good article Tom. I agree the democrats and big labor need to expand to show why there way is better. One point is the governor using the Pure Michigan campaign to push his right wing agenda. Democrats need to harp on that and to point out state funds should not be used to promote extremist right wing causes. We need to defund it and make the repubs pay for their own advertising.

  • 4 harvey bronstein // Jan 11, 2013 at 4:18 pm

    Tom, is correct in everything that he says. The answer is to take back the House and the Governor’s chair in 2014. I suggest that Mike Duggan for for Governor rather than mayor. He can beat Snyder.

  • 5 roger march // Jan 12, 2013 at 5:27 am

    Tom Watkins is like a statue of liberty for truth@ Keeping writing… keep writing!!!!!!

  • 6 Chuck Fellows // Jan 12, 2013 at 7:43 am

    Members of all political parties and their supporters should heed Tom’s words.

    And cease their focus on the preservation of the union or the party and pay attention to governing.

  • 7 John H. Logie, Sr // Jan 12, 2013 at 8:12 am

    Once again, friend Tom has shined a light on a problem for somebody, in this case the State Democratic Party. As a political Independent for 50 years, I have watched with increasing dismay, the mutual polarization of politics as it is now being played. Having known Jerry Ford all my life, I learned from him that when we became Minority Leader in the federal House of Representatives, late in his life, he told me that he knew that if any part of the Republican Party platform was going to become law, he had to learn how to make deals, from weakness. And he did. Shortly after RTW was jammed through the Lame Duck session, I was talking with a local Democratic state house member who told me this was a declaration of war to them against this governor and “anything” he and his party now want to do going forward. It sounded much like Senator McConnell’s statement, the “his job as US Senate Minority Leader was to see that Barack Obama is a one term President.” How did that work out for him? We need men and women of good will on both sides of the aisle to work together to create good policies which benefit this state and its people. We must demand it. Hizzoner

  • 8 Michael Warren // Jan 12, 2013 at 6:35 pm

    As always, Tom’s words are insightful and worthy of thoughtful consideration and respect.

  • 9 Mark Francis // Jan 13, 2013 at 7:54 am

    Some times a look in the mirror is scary. We don’t want to see the new wrinkles. Tom makes some good points in the fact that both parties are outdated and unorganized.

    The both want to stick to old, outdated ideas that reflect only a small part of their parties. I am not in favor of what the Govenor did with the RTW, the new taxes on retirees or his stance on public education. However we have small factions that are self serving and do not see the bigger picture.

    As Einstien said “…the defination of insanity is attmepting to do the same thing over and over but expecting differnet results.”

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