[News Clip of Diane Sawyer, NBC]: The showdown raging in the heartland of the United States, perhaps no place in America more closely associated with unions than the state of Michigan. Today thousands of union workers descended on the Capitol to protest a new law they believe could be an ominous signal for unions and worker paychecks everywhere.
Narrator: That was the scene in 2012, as Republicans in Michigan passed a vicious anti-union law known as “right-to-work.”
But now, for the first time in 40 years, Democrats control Michigan’s state government, and they have a plan to put power back in the hands of working people.
Darrin Camilleri: I think that we’ve gotta use our moment that the voters have given us to help support workers whenever we can. This is our chance to right our wrong.
Narrator: That’s state senator Darrin Camilleri. He’s leading the charge to reverse Republican’s power grab for corporations.
Joey Andrews: Right-to-work is a misleadingly-named law that is essentially the right to freeload. Makes it so that workers at unionized companies don’t have to pay union dues, but still get to benefit from collective bargaining agreements brought on by those unions.
Darrin Camilleri: To do what they did 10 years ago behind closed doors was devastating. It struck a chord with working people and it’s something that they’ve never forgotten.
Narrator: Led by governor Rick Snyder, republicans’ goal was to cripple labor unions and make it harder for workers to collectively bargain for better wages, benefits, and working conditions. And it worked. Unions lost 40,000 members in recent years and wages stagnated.
Darrin Camilleri: So it cut the power of working people. It showed that corporations have much more say than their workers. And it showed these exact workers all over the state that the government cared much more about profits than about people.
Narrator: In a state that was once a stronghold of organized labor, how did corporations gain the upper hand? And can democrats actually put power back in the hands of working people? We went to Michigan to find out.
To understand the current fight over right to work, we have to go back to the New Deal.
Robert Bruno: So in 1935, Congress passed the National Labor Relations Act. That was the first national labor law that provided protection to workers in the private sector, the right to organize and an obligation on the part of the employer to bargain a collective bargaining agreement. After the law was passed in 1935, elections were held across the country in workplaces for workers to choose a union. And unions were winning these elections at an extremely high rate, nearly a hundred percent of the time.
Narrator: That’s Robert Bruno, a professor of labor history at the university of Illinois.
Robert Bruno: And then in the 1940s, the labor movement began to expand its organizing into the South. They were making significant gains where they were organizing new members in the deep south places like Texas, for example.
As a result of that growth of the labor movement, there was a movement generated by white supremacists in the South, connected to the business community who organized around the idea of passing the so-called right to work laws, to try to stop the labor movement from expanding into the South.
Ultimately, when Republicans took control of the United States Congress in 1946, high on their agenda was the passage of a right-to-work bill, known as the Taft-Hartley Law.
Narrator: While the Taft-Hartley Act cut off the rise of unions in the south, labor continued to flourish in northern states — especially in Michigan.
Robert Bruno: Michigan was the home of the United Auto Workers, and it was the efforts of the United Auto Workers in the thirties and the forties and beyond that really brought to life the labor movement.
John Cakmaki: The union density in Michigan, you know, at one point we were 38% union. So for every 10 jobs there was, almost four out of 10 were unions. So, when I was a kid it was a big deal. It was, you know, people knew about unions, they understood it.
Katie Jackson: My father was a firefighter. He became a union president for Local 366. They didn’t have medical, they didn’t have optical, they didn’t have hospitalization. My father fought for those and got ’em. The union has got Michigan to where they’re at.
Narrator: And then, in 2012, “right-to-work” came to Michigan….
Darrin Camilleri: There was no hearing, there were no public availabilities. They passed the entire thing in one day. The governor signed it behind closed doors because they knew what they were doing was incredibly unpopular. The people of Michigan did not wanna see a change in our workplace protections and our union intentions.
John Cakmaki: The intent was really to just weaken unions. And by doing that you really, you’re really weakening the middle class.
Narrator: Republicans sold Right to Work as a way to attract new jobs and businesses.
[News Clip]: This is gonna be good for economic development, for more and better jobs coming to Michigan. We’ve watched closely what’s going on in Indiana. They’ve seen many more companies looking at Indiana, citing this as one of the factors—the fact that they did this back in February—and they can have thousands more jobs in that state because they’re a Right To Work state.
Narrator: This has not been the case. Instead, workers have suffered as unions struggled to attract new members.
John Cakmaki: We were organizing, we just got done organizing five or six plants. I mean, we were, we were frankly kicking ass. And, and then, then everything changed that day in December of 2012. I mean, it literally changed everything.
Robert Bruno: When Michigan implements right-to-work and weakens worker rights in the state, you see a significant reduction in the average earnings. And a significant reduction in the hourly wages in comparison to states that are strong worker rights states.
You see a reduction in the percentage of workers that have employer paid healthcare. When you compare a right-to-work state to worker rights state in Michigan, regardless of whether you had a high school degree or a bachelor’s degree, you saw your earnings reduced. Poverty levels were a bit higher in right-to-work states like Michigan. Fatality rates, on the job fatality rates, were significantly higher in states that passed right-to-work laws.
Narrator: But after 10 years, workers have had enough.
John Cakmaki : Right now we get more calls than we have ever had for people wanting to organize.
Narrator: And thanks to the support of working people, democrats are back in control of Michigan’s government.
Joey Andrews: I think there’s no trifecta without labor.
In Michigan we haven’t had a trifecta in 40 years. And in those 40 years we’ve been promising better labor laws, better protections for workers.
Darrin Camilleri: We’ve just gotta make sure that we are in a position now with this new power to deliver on the campaign promises that we’ve made. And one of those in my instance is repealing the anti-union right-to-work law.
Katie Jackson: Gretchen Whitmer, she said she’s going to repeal this, and I believe that she will. Do I think that she’s going to help the unions? Big-time. I hope that we hold her feet to the fire and make sure she does.
Narrator: Sen. Camilleri has introduced the bill to repeal the right-to-work law
Darrin Camilleri: We’re seeing a resurgence of union activism not only here in Michigan, but everywhere in the country. Because we’ve seen the power of what unions can do. They can help you get better wages. They can help you get better health care and better benefits. And folks would prefer that, right? Whether you’re somebody who works at Starbucks, or you’re essentially having a conversation with workers at Amazon in some of the warehouses, or even places like Chipotle. The economy might look a little different, but the strength and the power of unions stays the same.
Narrator: Already, the bill is under attack from corporate lobbyists and the right wing think tanks that they fund.
Darrin Camilleri: I mean so far we’ve seen organizations that are on the right wing of the right wing, Americans for Prosperity and a few other groups like that, that have started their anti campaign.
Joey Andrews: By all means, let the chamber attack me for helping raise people’s wages and restoring their pension funds. And If they wanna paint me as a bad guy for making sure that working people can retire and have a dignified life, then have at it.
Narrator: Michigan is on its way to repealing right-to-work. But in states across the country, workers need more bargaining power, not less. If Michigan succeeds, it would be the first state to repeal a right-to-work law in 60 years. It could set an example for other states hoping to restore power to working people.
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