Traverse City Record-Eagle

Op-Ed Columns

December 16, 2012

George Weeks: Contrasting roles of Murphy, Snyder in labor

There is little in common between Republican Gov. Rick Snyder and 1937-38 Democratic Gov. Frank Murphy — enshrined in history as Michigan's "labor governor" — other than their passion for the University of Michigan.

It was an interesting twist that when Snyder last week signed legislation to make Michigan the 24th right-to-work state — protested by more than 10,000 pro-union demonstrators at the state capitol — it was just short of the 76th anniversary of start of the 44-day United Auto Workers Dec. 30 strike against General Motors in Flint that spread to plants across the country.

From the strike, the UAW won agreement to bargain exclusively with GM over the wages and working conditions of 200,000 workers.

Since the UAW at the time represented only about 5 percent of the workers, it was a breakthrough for what was to become the most powerful union in Michigan — whose power was diminished by Snyder's pen last week.

The strike at GM plants already was in progress when Murphy, a popular Depression-era mayor of Detroit, an activist U.S. attorney general and defender of civil liberties as justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, was inaugurated Jan. 1, 1937.

On Jan. 11 of that year, as other Michigan governors had done before him in response to labor strife, Murphy sent in the Michigan National Guard, but only to maintain order.

He refused to use the guardsmen to eject the workers from the plants they occupied, even after they defied a court order to evacuate.

Murphy played a decisive role in mediating an end to the strike, but a wave of other sit-down strikes followed the settlement across the land to the extent that the New York Times in 1937 called Michigan "the uneasy place"¦where all the trouble that affect the nation starts."

Now Michigan's right-to-work-issue is being trumpeted across the land by TV and other means far more than were available in Murphy's days. For a few days, it was the lead item on the networks, as well in such print publications as the Detroit dailies and the Wall Street Journal.

The most revealing thing I read last week about this issue was an interview Detroit News columnist Daniel Howes had with UAW President Bob King, who admitted some mistakes in pushing the constitutional Proposal 2 on collective bargaining on the Nov. 6 ballot.

Howes wrote: "King twice said it is 'accurate' to say Gov. Rick Snyder explicitly warned him that Republicans in the Legislature likely would push right-to-work legislation in the lame-duck session if labor ignored the GOP in both houses, pressed ahead and filed petitions to place Proposal 2 on the November ballot."

That's the first and best explanation I saw on why Snyder flip-flopped and supported right-to-work after previously saying it was not on his "agenda."

King, according to Howes, said: "I talked to the governor and we both wanted to find a path" to keep "divisive" right-to-work bills from coming before the Legislature.

Subsequently, both Detroit dailies reported Saturday that Snyder told their editorial boards he had issued the warning. Free Press columnist Tom Walsh wrote: "Snyder said he warned organized labor leaders point-blank last summer that pushing Proposal 2 on the November ballot might provoke a right-to-work campaign, and that he asked the union leaders, 'Please, don't do this.'

"They went ahead anyway. When that pro-labor initiative was rejected by voters GOP power brokers launched a statewide TV ad campaign a few weeks later promoting the virtues of right-to-work, which bans compulsory payment of dues by workers covered under a union contract."

The warning also was referred to Friday by nationally syndicated columnist George Will:

"Rick Snyder, who is hardly a human cactus, warned Michigan's labor leaders. The state's mild-mannered Republican governor, in his first term in his first public office, has rarely been accused of being, or praised for being, a fire-breathing conservative. When unions put on Michigan's November ballot two measures that would have entrenched collective-bargaining rights in the state constitution, Snyder told them they were picking a fight they might regret."

George Weeks, a member of the Michigan Journalism Hall of Fame, for 22 years was the political columnist for The Detroit News and previously with UPI as Lansing bureau chief and foreign editor in Washington. His weekly Michigan Politics column is syndicated by Superior Features.

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