Whitmer talks workers’ rights, as GOP Legislature shows no sign of budging on Right to Work

Union members from around the country rally at the Michigan State Capitol to protest a vote on Right-to-Work legislation December 11, 2012 in Lansing, Michigan. Republicans control the Michigan House of Representatives, and Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder has said he will sign the bill if it is passed. | Bill Pugliano/Getty Images

Before last year’s manic Lame Duck period which saw a number of socially conservative and GOP power grab bills fly to then-Gov. Rick Snyder’s desk, there was the tumultuous 2012 session.

That’s when Snyder inked bills making Michigan, home of the UAW, a Right to Work state. That legislation — a right-wing priority that has been enacted in 27 states plus Guam — allows workers to still get union benefits without paying dues, also known as “free-riders.” Another reason Republicans back RTW is that it’s curtailed the power of unions, which are a big bloc in the Democratic Party.

As Senate minority leader in 2012, Democrat Gretchen Whitmer was a leader fighting against the late-term push for RTW, appearing in national news outlets. But the GOP-controlled Legislature and Snyder prevailed.

Legislation to repeal RTW is the first bill introduced this session by the newly revitalized Legislative Labor Caucus. But now as governor, Whitmer acknowledged in an interview with the Michigan Advance on Mackinac Island that the bill won’t be hitting her desk, since Republicans are still in charge of both chambers. She did talk about what can be done for workers’ rights after eight years of GOP attacks.

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer speaks at the auto insurance reform bill signing, May 30, 2019 | Andrew Roth

Whitmer also discussed the rash of abortion bans across the country, how she was able to carry some state House districts won by Republicans, and what’s been the most difficult part of being governor in her first five months in office.

From this sit-down interview, the Advance previously reported on Whitmer’s answer to progressive critics on auto insurance reform, her relationship with trial lawyers, budget negotiations through the summer, and the possibility of a road-funding deal.

The following are excerpts:

Michigan Advance: You were a key leader during the 2012 Right to Work fight. What can realistically be done with the Republican Legislature to boost workers’ rights in Michigan?

Whitmer: Well, one of the things that we take seriously is just within the state government, ensuring that we’ve got an Office of the State Employer that respects unions and understands how important our quality of life and the safety and the rights of our employees are.

Michigan State Police cars line up outside the Michigan Capitol during the Right to Work protest, December 2012 | Susan J. Demas

… I would love to sign a bill that repeals Right to Work; I’ve said that all along, but with this Legislature, it’s not going to be hitting my desk. So we’ve got to be very thoughtful in terms of how we support our workforce in the state of Michigan and the rights to collaborate, negotiate and collectively bargain.

We’re seeing great investments from FCA [Fiat Chrysler Automotive] in Michigan and union jobs that are good paying jobs that will have a multiplier of 8 to 1, so it’ll benefit a lot of people who aren’t in those unions would benefit as a result of this agreement. And I think that the value is incredibly important, and that’s something that we need to continue to protect.

Michigan Advance: You won in a lot of state House districts where ultimately Democrats didn’t. What lessons do you have from your election in 2018 that you think would be beneficial to Democrats who want to pick up more seats in 2020 and win statewide?

Current Michigan House districts

Whitmer: The gerrymandering … it’s really skewed how we’re represented in Lansing. And I think that the changes that we made in terms of redistricting reform [Proposal 2 of 2018] are going to be beneficial. But the old standbys of showing up and having conversations with people and staying focused on the dinner-table issues I think are real, and it’s powerful, and it’s what should center every candidate in every campaign.

But when we have real redistricting reform so the districts actually are clear when it comes to representation, I think we’ll see a much different Legislature. And that’s a good thing for everyone in our state. The hyper-partisan districts that have been drawn are what’s contributing to some of the ugliness and the inability to get some important things done in Lansing.

Michigan Advance: There are now two abortion ban ballot initiatives out there in Michigan. Why do you think women’s rights are under attack all across the country right now?

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer at the Planned Parenthood Summit | Susan J. Demas

Whitmer: Well, I think it’s about control. It’s about politics. It’s about the most I think divisive conversations that are happening in this country right now are engineered to separate and demoralize the electorate. I think it’s incredibly destructive. These are settled medical procedures and settled law in our country that is now being raised for the purposes of dividing us.

I think it’s disheartening. It’s angering and it’s frustrating because we have a lot of really critical things that we need to tackle. And to go back and try to re-litigate medical procedures that are sound scientifically and legal rights that have been codified is just a destructive purpose of politics.

Michigan Advance: What’s been the most difficult part of being governor?

Whitmer: You know, the campaign prepared me well because I’m working very intense hours, and I think that the intellectual intensity is different. But I think making a phone call to a National Guard person’s family and the loss of a life is one of the toughest things I’ve had to do.

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Susan J. Demas is an 18-year journalism veteran and one of the state’s foremost experts on Michigan politics, appearing on MSNBC, CNN, NPR and WKAR-TV’s “Off the Record.” In addition to serving as Editor-in-Chief, she is the Advance’s chief columnist, writing on women, LGBTQs, the state budget, the economy and more. Most recently, she served as Vice President of Farough & Associates, Michigan’s premier political communications firm. For almost five years, Susan was the Editor and Publisher of Inside Michigan Politics, the most-cited political newsletter in the state. Susan’s award-winning political analysis has run in more than 80 national, international and regional media outlets, including the Guardian U.K., NBC News, the New York Times, the Detroit News and MLive. She is the only Michigan journalist to be named to the Washington Post’s list of “Best Political Reporters,” the Huffington Post’s list of “Best Political Tweeters” and the Washington Post’s list of “Best Political Bloggers.” Susan was the recipient of a prestigious Knight Foundation fellowship in nonprofits and politics. She served as Deputy Editor for MIRS News and helped launch the Michigan Truth Squad, the Center for Michigan’s fact-checking project. She started her journalism career reporting on the Iowa caucuses for The (Cedar Rapids) Gazette. Susan has hiked over 3,000 solo miles across four continents and climbed more than 60 mountains. She also enjoys dragging her husband and two teenagers along, even if no one else wants to sleep in a tent anymore.

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