The Macomb Daily

Michigan Democrats can reignite their state’s vaunted labor tradition

Reporting indicates that Democrats plan to use this newfound power to repeal the state’s right-to-work laws. That would be a fitting move for a state that was often closely associated with unionism, labor rights and the New Deal.

- By Ken Wohl Ken Wohl is a PhD candidate in history at Stony Brook University. His work focuses on the political and labor history of the New Deal.

One of the brightest spots on a surprising­ly good election night for Democrats came in Michigan. There, they swept the statewide offices on the ballot, captured control of both houses of the state legislatur­e for the first time since 1983 and passed multiple liberal referendum­s, including one adding protection for reproducti­ve rights to the state constituti­on.

Barring some change during the next two years, it will be the first time since 1937-1939 that Democrats have had complete control of the legislativ­e process in Michigan for a full term. Reporting indicates that Democrats plan to use this newfound power to repeal the state’s right-to-work laws. That would be a fitting move for a state that was often closely associated with unionism, labor rights and the New Deal. The right-towork laws epitomize how Michigan — and the United States — shifted away from New Deal labor politics in the second half of the 20th century. Returning to a focus on economic and labor justice in the former hotbed of unionism may help jump-start a return to New Deal labor policies and begin to address our current economic inequaliti­es and struggles.

When Franklin D. Roosevelt won Michigan in 1932, it was the first time the state had ever chosen a Democrat for president. Roosevelt’s ascendancy in Michigan perfectly epitomized the new political coalition he put together outside the South: voters of all races in Detroit and White working-class voters in small and medium-size industrial towns that exemplifie­d the Midwest.

Labor unions were at the heart of this coalition, propelling Democrats to major gains. Roosevelt was a champion of unions. He argued that strong and robust unions were not only needed to counter the Great Depression and ensure labor rights for workers, but also were “one of the characteri­stics of a free and democratic modern nation.”

Roosevelt backed this rhetoric with action. The most famous and important of his New Deal labor policies was the 1935 National Labor Relations Act, otherwise known as the Wagner Act. The law guaranteed workers the right to join a union and collective­ly bargain, and it created the National Labor Relations Board to ensure companies followed these provisions. The Wagner Act gave a growing industrial workforce new and vital protection­s, while also increasing the power of labor unions themselves.

Before the New Deal, the American Federation of Labor (AFL) dominated American labor. But without backing from the federal government, the AFL largely only unionized skilled (often White) male workers — those whose labor was valuable enough to employers to make their collective bargaining efforts effective. Meanwhile, the majority of the nation’s unskilled (often not White) male and female workers lacked the leverage to make their unionizati­on attempts effective.

In response to the New Deal’s support of labor rights, however, unskilled workers gained the necessary leverage to form a new labor federation, the Congress of Industrial Organizati­ons (CIO), which grew to challenge the AFL for labor supremacy. While the two federation­s have since merged, in the 1930s, the AFL was more conservati­ve and traditiona­l, resisting efforts to break down gender and racial barriers in the workforce. In comparison, the CIO was further left, with its leadership ranks often filled by communists and socialists. It was much more willing to engage in sit-ins, wildcat strikes and other militant actions to demand change and progress. Across the Midwest, particular­ly in Michigan, the CIO found success and power through the United Auto Workers of America.

Strikes, such as the 1936-1937 Flint strike, ended in victory for the UAW and further increased their power and influence. Encouraged by the success of these actions, the CIO successful­ly pressured the Roosevelt administra­tion to push leftward on labor rights and for more substantia­l union power. And it often found a sympatheti­c ear. In 1938, Roosevelt signed the Fair Labor Standards Act, which created a minimum wage and standardiz­ed time-and-a-half overtime pay laws.

These labor and economic policies strengthen­ed the labor movement. In the eight years between Roosevelt’s inaugurati­on in 1932 and America’s entry into World War II, union membership in the United States increased from approximat­ely 3 million to almost 10 million.

During and after World War II, Michigan and specifical­ly Detroit were economic centers that represente­d the dreams of the New Deal and how intertwine­d they were with labor unions. Detroit became the epitome of the “Arsenal of Democracy,” an example of unionized workers living out the American Dream and fulfilling the promise of American exceptiona­lism. In the immediate postWorld War II era, unions helped create the middle class by raising the standards of living and shrinking income inequality.

But the aggressive tactics of the CIO and the growing might of unions made conservati­ves and business leaders determined to curb their power at the first available opportunit­y. It came in 1947, when a Republican Congress passed the Taft-Hartley Act over President Harry S. Truman’s veto. The law eliminated unions’ right to engage in wildcat strikes and other more militant forms of protest. In addition, the act empowered individual states to establish right-to-work laws. These laws allowed individual workers covered under union contracts to opt out of paying dues — while forcing unions to give them the same benefits and services anyway. This arrangemen­t left unions with less money to spend on contract negotiatio­ns, political organizati­on or legal defenses, reducing their power and ability to demand change.

Many of the first states to adopt right-to-work laws were in the South, where industry was more sparse and, even during the New Deal, support for unions was lower. The conservati­ve Democrats who dominated the region feared that the labor movement and union power would lead to Black radicaliza­tion and increased efforts to end Jim Crow segregatio­n.

Unions continued to maintain more power in the industrial Midwest. But even there, union strength faded during the second half of the 20th century. Deindustri­alization, suburbaniz­ation and racial tensions weakened cities, which had formed the bedrock of labor union influence. The decline of union power was accompanie­d by a deteriorat­ion of the middle class and a new rise in economic inequality.

At the same time, the historical connection dating to the New Deal between industrial unions and the Democratic Party began to fray. The electoral success of Ronald Reagan turned many of the White working-class industrial voters who had made up the backbone of the New Deal coalition into “Reagan Democrats.” Despite these shifting political winds, the industrial Midwest’s labor history was deeply rooted, and the region continued to resist the conservati­ve urge to enact right-to-work laws — even on the few occasions when Republican­s gained complete control of the legislativ­e process in Michigan.

This resistance to right-towork laws faded in the 21st century. In 2012, a Republican legislatur­e passed, and Gov. Rick Snyder (R) signed, two right-to-work laws in Michigan. One law targeted private employees, while the other targeted public employees, marking the first time a Midwestern state had passed such laws — although others have since followed suit. In recent years, the relationsh­ip between unions and the Democratic Party has only continued to unravel, including in 2016, when union households often supported Donald Trump over Hillary Clinton.

The New Deal coalition of the 1930s is long dead both in Michigan and across the country. Even Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s double-digit win on Nov. 8 relied on very different voters from those who had propelled Roosevelt’s success in the state. Winning Detroit was central to both campaigns, but Detroit’s electoral power is far less in 2022 than it was in the 1930s. And while Roosevelt swept the Upper Peninsula and won counties across the state, Whitmer relied on college towns and exploding suburban population­s that have been trending leftward.

Repealing the state’s rightto-work laws probably won’t lure the White working-class towns that have gone Republican back to the Democratic Party — because many working-class voters are no longer unionized, and paying compulsory dues for those who are in a union is unlikely to be a popular move in the current economic climate. But such a move could encourage a new push for unionizati­on, one including fast-food and warehouse workers, which would help address growing economic inequality and lead to a higher quality of living. Michigan was once the hotbed of union and labor activity. Now, with full Democratic control of the state, it may be the best and only time for Michigan to reclaim its role as a champion of labor.

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