Do Unions Still Have Clout In Michigan?

The contentious fight over labor rights has been unfolding throughout the Midwest in the last couple years. Michigan becoming a right-to-work state is only the latest example. Over the past two years in Wisconsin and Ohio, Republican governors took on labor unions.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

The contentious fight over labor rights has been unfolding throughout the Midwest in the last couple of years. Michigan is only the latest example.

NPR's national political correspondent Don Gonyea joins us now to explore the broader impact of all this. Good morning, Don.

DON GONYEA, BYLINE: Good morning.

MONTAGNE: So how is what has happened in Michigan different from what we've seen over the past couple of years in Wisconsin and Ohio, where Republican governors also took on labor unions?

GONYEA: Listen, those were big. They were huge but they were really rooted in state budget matters. This, much more broadly, attacks the powers of unions in this state across the board. There were those huge protests in Wisconsin and Ohio, but those places only went after public sector employee unions. This deals with all unions though it does carve out exceptions for police and for firefighters.

In Michigan, nobody in a unionized workforce can be forced to join or pay dues as a condition of employment. It puts unions at risk of losing members, of losing income from dues, of losing clout. The ultimate impact isn't clear, especially in a place like Michigan that's still considered a labor stronghold, but it is a huge setback.

There is a big similarity between this and Wisconsin and Ohio. Big outside money from conservative groups - Americans for Prosperity and the Koch brothers - played a big role in the process.

MONTAGNE: Well, let's talk about the political aspects of it. What does it mean for Michigan, and more broadly, for the region?

GONYEA: I think there's a sense if it can happen in Michigan it can happen anyplace. That's certainly the message that right-to-work supporters will take - they'll be emboldened. And for unions facing declining membership, it is another big blow. In the meantime, Michigan will certainly become a battleground of court challenges, of recall attempts, possibly, and especially bitter politics for the foreseeable future.

Already the issue has attracted big players, there's that outside money we talked about. But just on Monday of this week, we had the president weigh in at a Detroit area stop. Here he is.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: These so-called right-to-work laws, they don't have to do with economics. They have everything to do with politics.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHEERING)

OBAMA: What they're really talking about is giving you the right to work for less money.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHEERING)

GONYEA: Again, Michigan wasn't hotly contested in the presidential race this year. But the president and most Democrats in the state really rely on union help, union ground troops, in elections.

MONTAGNE: Well, where do the labor you use go after a defeat like this in a state that has been, as you say, such a stronghold?

GONYEA: Really, you cannot overstate what a setback this is for them - both in real terms and symbolically. When Indiana became the first big Midwestern state to go right-to-work this year, that was meaningful but that's a conservative state. It was no huge shock. No big surprise.

Michigan is a huge surprise because of its deep labor history, its huge manufacturing presence. Again, they'll have to really gear up for battle now; legally and legislatively and politicaly, because they know they've taken a big hit.

MONTAGNE: Well, Michigan Governor Rick Snyder is up for reelection in two years, Don, it sounds like that campaign has already started.

GONYEA: It has. It's still 2012, but 2014 is under way. We don't know Governor Snyder's plans for reelection, but we know what the issue's going to be.

MONTAGNE: Don, thanks much.

GONYEA: Thank you.

MONTAGNE: NPR's Don Gonyea.

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