Michigan’s new right-to-work law has has struck a savage blow to America’s labor movement in its heartland. Unions across the state have thronged to Lansing to oppose the attack, which makes union membership optional and thus reduces labor’s bargaining clout. But tucked into the legislation are subtle exemptions for particular workers—police and firefighters, who have historically played by a different set of rules, creating political divides in the labor movement.
But in this case, it seems that many members of Michigan’s police and firefighters unions—about 1,700 bargaining units altogether—are standing in solidarity with other public-sector unions to oppose the law.
Georgetown University labor historian Joseph McCartin, in an email to In These Times, points out the hypocrisy of lawmakers in exempting these honored civil servants from a supposedly “pro-worker” new law:
If these initiatives were pro-worker [as Governor RIck Snyder has claimed], why wouldn’t they also be good for public safety workers?… The exemption makes the intentions of the laws framers’ crystal clear: they intend to undermine organizations that ally with their political opponents.
Right-to-work proponents argue variously that the nature of police and firefighter work requires an exception and that Michigan’s special set of collective-bargaining rules for public-safety unions places them on a separate tier. But union workers offer a more straightforward explanation: Divide and conquer.
Historically, right-wing lawmakers have cozied up to the fraternalistic firefighter and police unions, which have in turn supported conservative law-and-order policies. Police and firefighters are “often disconnected from the rest of the municipal workforce, and they are very occupation specific,” notes Marick Masters, director of the Labor@Wayne program at Wayne State University in Michigan. “And so the sense of community of interest that they would have with the broader labor movement is not really as intense.”
But the turmoil over right to work has drawn backlash from police and firefighter unions, which have decried the law even though it would primarily impact other workers. In recent years, solidarity has grown among public-sector unions due to the toxic fiscal climate that hovers over the entire sector, from endangered police pensions to schools threatened with privatization.
“Thirty or forty years ago, it was much more clear that police and firemen were Republican,” says Nelson Lichtenstein, director of the Center for the Study of Work, Labor and Democracy at University of California-Santa Barbara. “But in more recent years, [police and firefighters] have the same kind of budget constraints and issues that other public employees have.” For police and fire departments battered by fiscal austerity, he says, “the distinction between their day to day job and their larger politics is clearer today than it was a generation ago.”
Besides, police and firefighter unions’ unique status has been a double-edged sword. Michigan’s Public Act 312, the legislation governing public-safety unions, bans strikes and forces binding arbitration to resolve contract impasses. With this law, Michigan effectively contained these agencies’ bargaining power during the roiling social unrest of the 1960s, just as New York did with the anti-strike provisions of the infamous Taylor Law, enacted in 1967.
Last year, when Governor Scott Walker tried to quash collective bargaining for public sector workers, his attempts to win over police and firefighters failed. Though Wisconsin’s anti-union law contained an exemption for police and firefighters unions similar to Michigan’s, they rebuffed what they saw as an attempted buy-off and took to the streets, “carrying picket signs, signing petitions and standing side-by-side with their labor brethren,” as Politico reported.
Now, polarization over Michigan’s even more sweeping right-to-work law is provoking another labor standoff. Fred Timpner, executive director of the Michigan Association of Police, described a paradoxical two-sided police presence at the protests in Lansing:
There were police officers there protesting the bill, and quite frankly, there were [other] police officers there—mainly the state police… I feel very sorry for the guys—they had to stand there and protect the legislature.
Timpner also rejects a conservative argument for the firefighter and police exemptions—that their public safety duties can’t afford to be disrupted by anti-union policies that potentially divide the workplace. “If it’s so important to have a cohesive work unit in police and fire like that,” Timpner says, “then it should be same whether you’re an auto worker, or whether you’re a school teacher.”
Of course, public safety unions are still far from radicalized. State troopers were out in force in Lansing, confronting pro-union demonstrators with riot gear and pepper spray. Safety unions’ political opposition won’t likely translate into industrial action on the scale of the fabled “blue flu” (safety officer protests in the form of “sick-outs”) or outright clashes with the government (such as those seen in the municipal labor showdowns of New York’s fiscal crisis four decades ago).
So, despite the fleeting hopes expressed by some Occupy activists, class consciousness isn’t provoking sabotage in the police ranks. Nonetheless, right-to-work has mobilized public-safety workers around a bread-and-butter issue affecting all branches of the labor movement.
Michael Docherty, president of the Michigan Professional Firefighters Union, tells ITT via email:
We, as firefighters, have opposed any RTW legislation whether we are excluded or not. We will continue to support all workers in the fight to overturn this anti-worker law and hold Legislators accountable…. This has nothing to do with Freedom for workers, only a huge power grab by corporate special interests to weaken workers’ rights.
Harold Schaitberger, president of the International Association of Fire Fighters, proclaimed cross-sector solidarity at an oppositon rally in Lansing:
They think they can carve us out of that bill? Well, they can’t carve us out of this labor movement…. We’ll be marching with you. We’ll fight with you, we’ll stand on the front line with you.
That united front is a measure of how deeply the war on labor has angered union workers. Even if they’re only protesting on an off-day, police and firefighters aren’t about to let their line of duty cut off their allegiance to labor.
Michelle Chen is a contributing writer at In These Times and The Nation, a contributing editor at Dissent and a co-producer of the “Belabored” podcast. She studies history at the CUNY Graduate Center. She tweets at @meeshellchen.