Mary Bottari: At the last minute, Michigan governor uses right-wing group’s draft of legislation that gives workers the “right” to work without collective bargaining
PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay in Baltimore. And welcome to the first in what is going to become a regular series of reports from Mary Bottari. And she now joins us from Madison, Wisconsin. Thanks for joining us, Mary.
MARY BOTTARI, DIRECTOR, REAL ECONOMY PROJECT, CENTER FOR MEDIA AND DEMOCRACY: Thank you, Paul.
JAY: Mary is the deputy director for the Center for Media and Democracy. And they publish websites like PRWatch.org and BanksterUSA.org and ALECExposed.org. And she’s going to be doing regular reports on all of these things. Thanks for joining, Mary. So what are you following this week, Mary?
BOTTARI: Well, you know, we’re based here in Wisconsin, and we’ve been closely following the struggle in Michigan over the right-to-work law that the state legislature just jammed through.
JAY: Now, I guess it more appropriately could be titled the right to work without a union or collective bargaining law, which is more or less what it is. But you were telling me before the interview that the legislation changed at the last minute.
BOTTARI: Yeah. For a long time Governor Snyder said, I don’t want to do right-to-work, it’s too divisive, it’s not really our cup of tea here in Michigan, we support workers in Michigan, and those kinds of things. Then he threw all of that out the window when he realized that his lame-duck legislature was leaving and a new legislature had been elected, probably wouldn’t allow him to do right-to-work.
And I hate using the phrase right-to-work, but we’ve never come up with a good substitute for it. It is an Orwellian phrase. Lots of people refer to it as the right-to-work-for-less law, because there were 23 right-to-work states. They were mostly in the South. They made it veryâ€”the law makes it very difficult for unions to organize and to exist. So the right-to-work legislation is sort of a push in the race to the bottom in workers’ wages, workers’ benefits, and those kinds of things.
JAY: [incompr.] it’s the right to work without a union, right?
BOTTARI: That’s true. And it screws around with the financing of unions, and it makes it harder for them to generate revenue to pay for the cost of representation. So, anyways, the governor said, I’m not interested in that, and he changed his mind last week. He announced on Thursday that he was going to be going with right-to-work and thatâ€”in fact, he was going today with right-to-work. And at that moment, they substituted language into a previously existing bill that put in verbatim language from the American Legislative Exchange Council’s right-to-work bill.
JAY: And this ALEC, as I guess a lot of our viewers know, is this right-wing conservative group that drafts model legislation for states to adopt. And when Republicans can control state legislatures and the governor, they do what they just did in Michigan with this legislation.
BOTTARI: That’s right. And it’s not just legislators. If it was just legislators, we wouldn’t maybe worry so much about it. It’s legislators and corporations voting behind closed doors on model legislation. And those corporations are some of the largest corporations in the worldâ€”ExxonMobil, Koch Industries, those type of institutions who really benefit if unions aren’t around.
And the controversy over ALEC has risen to such an extreme this year that we’ve convinced 42 corporations, including Walmart, including General Motors, to drop out of ALEC. And yet in Michigan they decided to go in a different direction and polish up the ALEC right-to-work act and jam it through a lame-duck legislature who had been voted out of office. So it was grossly undemocratic, a total affront to working people around the state. People were very hot under the collar at the protest, at the meeting. There was a huge amount of upset. And it’s a major blow to the American labor movement.
JAY: Now, is this primarily aimed, do you think, at representation in terms of day-to-day working conditions and pay and such? Or is this more directed at trying to get unions out of the political game? So much union money is going to support Democratic Party candidates and union resources going, you know, in terms of knocking on doors and such. Is it more the political side that this is aimed at or not?
BOTTARI: It’s clear, when you look at the ALEC library of bills, they have about 20 or 30 ways to kneecap and defund and screw around with union financing, and they have about 20 and 30 other ways to kneecap and defund and screw around with trial lawyers. It is very clear that they’re targeting the big backers of the Democratic Party, that it is a completely partisan move, and that itâ€”you know, it hurts. It hits unions where it hurtsâ€”in the financing end. And they need that money to pay for organizers, they need that money to be a political force in the arena and to stand up for workers against CEOs and big corporate heads like the Koch brothers and their anti-worker agenda.
JAY: Some people have argued that this may have unintended consequences for the conservative backers of this legislation, in the sense that it’s actually going to force unions now to be a lot more communicative with their members and spend more of their efforts and time on educating their own members, ’cause now they’re going to have to collect dues voluntarily. And that’s how it used to be. In fact, in the days when unions were far more militant, it was days where they didn’t have this kind of check-off dues system. And some people have argued, in fact, the check-off system that’s in dispute now, where dues are collected through people’s pay, actually was part of a co-optation of the unions, it took out some of their verve and drive, and that in terms of unintended consequences it may push unions back into being more democratic than they were. I known they use that language, the right wing, that they want transparency and democracy. I think it’s the last thing they really want, but they might actually wind up getting it.
BOTTARI: Well, there’s no doubt that the union movement as a whole could benefit from more door-to-door communication with their members and more education of their members. But what we saw here in Wisconsin after something similar was tried is that the unions on the higher end of the pay scaleâ€”and here in Wisconsin that’s some of the teachers and other unionsâ€”did sign up to pay their dues. Some of the folks on the lower end of the pay scaleâ€”the county snowplow drivers, who I so desperately rely on as a Wisconsin commuterâ€”found it much harder to pay those union dues when they were struggling with their day-to-day bills. So here in Wisconsin, unions are going door to door more, they’re organizing more. But their numbers have taken a really hard hitâ€”up to 40 percent of teachers, maybe even higher for other public-sector workers.
JAY: Because of this legislation? Or for basic cutbacks and such?
BOTTARI: No, because of what Scott Walker did to collective bargaining. I mean, he gutted the collective bargaining law here in Wisconsin only for public workers. Snyder is doing something similar, although different, for public-sector and private-sector workers in Michigan. And may I just say that we may not be done in Wisconsin? After what we just saw in Michigan, Scott Walker could try the same thing and roll in right-to-work here in Wisconsin and finally attack the public-sector unions.
JAY: Okay, Mary. Anything else this week on your mind?
BOTTARI: The other thing that I was worried about this week is the Department of Energy put out a report saying that they thought maybe fracking for export was a great idea. They didn’t call it fracking for export; they call it natural gas export opportunities. But it’s a big change.
You know, ten years ago we were talking about importing liquified natural gas into the United States. Now there’s a natural gas boom led mostly by this destructive practice of fracking, and the Department of Energy thinks it’s a nice idea to expand those big LNG terminals to frack for foreigners and to export that stuff overseas, whereas you and I know the climate change activists are telling us that if we continue on this path what needs to happen is not more fracking, not more burning, not more drilling, but that companies need to keep about 80 percent of their identified reserves in the ground in order to ameliorate the climate-change situation. So I was very disappointed to see the Obama administration put out this big report. And it is now open for public comment. People can learn more about it on our website, PRWatch.org.
JAY: Alright. Thanks for joining us, Mary.
BOTTARI: Thank you.
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