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How Republicans Engineered a Blow to Michigan's Powerful Unions

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As a trained aerospaceengineer, Patrick Colbeck applied his penchant for data analysisand "systematic approach" to his new job in early 2011: aMichigan state senator, recently elected and keen to create jobsin the faded industrial powerhouse.

Those skills paid off handsomely for the first-termRepublican this week as Governor Rick Snyder signed into lawbills co-sponsored by Colbeck that ban mandatory unionmembership, making Michigan the nation's 24th right-to-workstate.

From outside Michigan Republican circles, it appeared thatthe Republican drive to weaken unions came out of the blue -proposed, passed and signed in a mere six days.

But the transformation had been in the making since March2011 when Colbeck and a fellow freshman, state RepresentativeMike Shirkey, first seriously considered legislation to banmandatory collection of union dues as a condition of employmentin Michigan. Such was their zeal, they even went to union hallsto make their pitch and were treated "respectfully," Colbecksaid.

The upstarts were flirting with the once unthinkable,limiting union rights in a state that is the home of the heavilyunionized U.S. auto industry and the birthplace of the nation'srichest union, the United Auto Workers. For many Americans,Michigan is the state that defines organized labor.

But in a convergence of methodical planning and patientalliance building - the "systematic approach" - the reformerswere on a roll, one that establishment Michigan Republicans cameto embrace and promised to bankroll.

Republicans executed a plan - the timing, the language ofthe bills, the media strategy, and perhaps most importantly, thebehind-the-scenes lobbying of top Republicans including Snyder.

They knew they would likely face an acrimonious battle ofthe kind they had seen over the last two years in theneighboring state of Wisconsin between Republican Governor ScottWalker and unions. Operating in plain sight but oftenoverlooked, they worked to put the necessary building blocks inplace.

"This was a risky move across-the-board and I wanted to makesure all of my (Republican) caucus members would come back toserve with me after the next election," said Colbeck, who ranfor office after whetting his political appetite as a Tea Partyactivist.

November elections turned out to be key to the Decembermove. House Republicans lost five seats, making passage inJanuary a more difficult proposition than pushing throughlegislation in the lame-duck session.

But the November elections had also served up a crushingreferendum defeat for unions, which Republicans saw as a signthat public opinion would be behind them in their move to curborganized labor's power.

Bottom Up

For his maiden initiative, Colbeck found inspiration in thetroubling 2010 census numbers. Michigan was the only state inthe United States to see its population fall during the previousdecade and he wanted to reverse that trend. People will not comeback without jobs, his thinking went. That's when Colbeckconcluded that right-to-work was required to bring in newinvestment.

They built from the grassroots, bottom up, rather than fromSnyder and top leaders in the legislature. If anything, MichiganSenate Majority Leader Randy Richardville was viewed as anobstacle because he represents a labor-friendly area.

Together with Jack Hoogendyk, a former Republican member ofthe Michigan House who supported right-to-work, and a smallgroup of other activists, they founded the "Michigan Freedom toWork" coalition, which sought to capitalize on Republicancontrol of the state legislature and the governorship.

They held press conferences in June 2011 and in September2011 took their show to the Republican Leadership Conference onMichigan's Mackinac Island. In attendance were Republicanpresidential candidates Mitt Romney and Rick Perry as well asRepublican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus.

As a sign of growing support among conservatives forright-to-work, Hoogendyk says that there were hundreds ofactivists in attendance wearing yellow "Freedom To Work"T-shirts.

A group linked to the conservative billionaire KochBrothers, owners of an energy and trading conglomerate who arereviled by unions and Democrats, held three conferences inMichigan in early 2012 on right-to-work featuring renownedconservative blogger Andrew Breitbart. Three Republicanpresidential candidates including Romney and some 1,500activists attended the last conference on Feb. 25 sponsored byAmericans for Prosperity, four days before Breibart's death.

The right-to-work campaign gathered momentum when theactivists linked up with Dick DeVos, the son of Richard DeVos,co-founder of Michigan-based Amway, and Ronald Weiser, formerchairman of the Michigan Republican Party and ambassador toSlovakia under President George W. Bush.

Richard DeVos was listed as the 67th richest person inAmerica by Forbes magazine in 2012 with a net worth estimated at$5.1 billion. Amway sells consumer goods such as skincare andhome cleaning supplies through some 3 million people and itsparent company had sales of $10.9 billion in 2011.

"Dick DeVos and Ron Weiser travel in a certain rarefiedatmosphere," Colbeck said, holding his hand above his head toindicate how far above him they are.

The wealthy businessman and the political guru both workedto persuade wavering Republican lawmakers by assuring them theywould have financial support if they faced recall elections overright-to-work, as happened in Wisconsin, Colbeck, Hoogendyk andother Republicans said.

Asked if he had promised campaign financial support tonervous Republicans, DeVos, who ran unsuccessfully for governorin 2006, said in a telephone interview: "I am pleased if I wasable to help encourage legislators to truly vote theirconscience without fear of political retribution from the otherside, which is known for its heavy-handed tactics."

By the summer of 2012, Colbeck said supporters had gatheredenough Republican votes to pass right-to-work in Michigan, butdecided to wait until after the November election.

"We wanted to be able to focus on the candidates during theelection rather than have this distraction," Colbeck said.

Battle Over Ballot Measure

Republicans said a key factor in passage of right-to-workwas what they consider an "overreach" by unions in Michigan.

On March 6 of this year, a union group including United AutoWorkers union president Bob King announced that they would seeka November ballot initiative to enshrine in the Michiganconstitution the right to collective bargaining.

"It was a power grab. In retrospect it was a huge mistake,"said Scott Hagerstrom, Michigan state director of Americans ForProsperity, a conservative non-profit partially funded by theKoch brothers.

At a public meeting of labor and corporate officers lastsummer, Snyder said he deliberately pleaded with union leadersnot to go forward with the ballot initiative.

"If you do this, you should anticipate you're going tocreate a divisive discussion on right-to-work also," Snyder toldReuters in an interview on Wednesday, recalling his remarks.

Unions pressed forward and some Republicans say that thisessentially blew up a "gentlemen's agreement" between the unionsand Republicans that neither would rock the boat on laborlegislation in Michigan.

UAW President Bob King told Reuters that labor leaderspursued Proposal 2 because they expected a Republican push onright-to-work regardless.

The battle over Proposal 2 was nasty. Protecting MichiganTaxpayers, a group backed by DeVos, spent $22.7 million tooppose it, according to campaign finance disclosures filed withthe state. DeVos family members alone provided $1.75 million ofits funding, the records show.

Protect Working Families, a group backed by a unioncoalition that included the UAW, spent $22.9 million supportingProposal 2, according to reports filed with the state. The UAWcontributed about $5.6 million to that committee.

The proposition went down to defeat by 57 percent to 43percent. Republicans interpreted this as suggesting that thepublic would support right-to-work, Colbeck said.

THE MOMENT IS NOW

After the November election, activists decided that the timewas ripe to bring up right-to-work.

"As soon as the election ended, the dialogue onright-to-work just really ramped up," Snyder said.

Activists viewed Senate leader Richardville as the mosthesitant of the Republican leadership. Rather than confront him,sponsors quietly tried to convince him and lobbied other membersof the Republican caucus.

Richardville, who says he hails from a union family,admitted that he was hesitant about right-to-work and said hemade his mind up slowly as he saw the support in his Republicancaucus.

"There wasn't a eureka moment in that I finally see thelight or a moment to jump up and down," he told Reuters.

Snyder, a former computer executive who had campaigned as amoderate in the 2010 election, had said for nearly two yearsthat right-to-work was too divisive for Michigan, but said hewould sign a law if the legislature passed it. After theelection he tried to get labor leaders and Republicans togetherto discuss a compromise but he said those talks failed.

Snyder and Richardville both told Reuters that they had madeup their minds to go through with right-to-work legislationafter a Dec. 5 meeting with longtime right-to-work advocatestate House Speaker Jase Bolger. Snyder announced the decision aday later and the draft laws were given preliminary approval bythe legislature within hours.

Sponsors inserted in the laws a provision allocating $1million to implement the laws, a shrewd way to make it harder tooverturn the laws by referendum because Michigan's constitutionbars challenges of spending bills.

A media campaign was rolled out. Television advertisingappeared across the state extolling the virtues of right-to-workproduced by an agency linked to an associate of Dick DeVos.

Democrats and unions were outraged and said they wereblindsided. More than 12,000 people demonstrated on the groundsof the state Capitol in Lansing. They floated giant grayballoons of rats named Snyder, Richardville, Bolger and DeVos.

It was too late. Republicans gave final approval to thebills while union members marched outside the building. Snydersigned them into law within hours.

Democrats have vowed retribution at the polls, suggestingpossible recall elections of Michigan Republicans.

"There's been two or three recall attempts on me already,"Snyder said. "When you're reinventing a state you're asking forlarge-scale change and when change comes, some people don't likeit."