Democrats in Michigan Are Showing National Democrats How to Actually Wield Power

Democrats usually waste their electoral majorities. So it’s shocking when the party uses its power to actually pass progressive and pro-worker legislation, as it just did in Michigan — including repealing the state’s right-to-work law.

A gun safety rally outside of the Michigan Capitol in Lansing, Michigan, on March 15, 2023. The Michigan House of Representatives passed new gun control laws on March 9. (Michigan Democrats / Twitter)

For several decades now, a basic political dynamic has recurred in Washington. Afforded political power, Republicans push their agenda as fiercely and aggressively as possible, using every tool at their disposal. Among Democrats, something like the opposite is more typically the case. Awarded a sweeping mandate in 2008 and a governing trifecta in 2009, to take a recent example, Barack Obama and his administration refused to go to the mats for the public option for health care, refrained from overhauling America’s financial system, and backed away from promised reforms that would have made it easier for workers to organize unions.

The same has often been true at the state level. As Thomas Frank observed in his 2016 book Listen, Liberal, many solidly blue states are effectively governed from the technocratic center-right. After their landslide midterm victory in 2010, meanwhile, Republicans newly elected to governors’ mansions and statehouses across America quickly moved to transform erstwhile Democratic bastions into laboratories of conservative policy. In both Wisconsin and Michigan, historic strongholds of the American labor movement, a barrage of anti-worker laws soon followed.

With a red trifecta at his disposal, Michigan’s then governor Rick Snyder took aim squarely at the state’s unions and rammed through sweeping “right-to-work” legislation. As State Senator Darrin Camilleri described it:

There was no hearing, there were no public availabilities. They passed the entire thing in one day. The governor signed it behind closed doors because they knew what they were doing was incredibly unpopular. The people of Michigan did not wanna see a change in our workplace protections and our union intentions.

Notwithstanding its unpopularity, the effort had the intended effect: union membership in Michigan has since dropped by 40,000, total union density (already down significantly from nearly 30 percent in 1989) had fallen by several percentage points to 15 percent as of last year, and wages have stagnated — rising but well below the rate of inflation.

Elected with their own governing trifecta last November — the first of its kind in forty years — state Democrats are now, refreshingly, pursuing a version of Snyder’s strategy in reverse. In a single day alone, ignoring the anguished cries of their Republican counterparts, Michigan’s Democrat-controlled legislature passed a new gun control law, voted to repeal the state’s unenforceable abortion ban, and enshrined protections for LGBTQ citizens. Significantly, legislation to end the state’s Snyder-era right-to-work law was just passed through the Michigan house and senate and is now on its way to Governor Gretchen Whitmer’s desk for approval.

Democratic representative Regina Weiss, the bill’s lead sponsor in the house, made a forceful speech in favor of its passage earlier this month, arguing: “Right-to-work was never about freedom — it was simply about control,” quoting Martin Luther King Jr’s famous declaration, “In our glorious fight for civil rights, we must guard against being fooled by false slogans, such as ‘right to work.’ It is a law to rob us of our civil rights and job rights.”

Other Democrats, like Representative Joey Andrews, have similarly mounted a full-throated case for workers’ rights and against right to work, which Andrews rightly calls “part of a larger political strategy envisioned by employers, advocated by their allied network of lobbyists and think tanks.”

Particularly in light of recent history, these developments are worth celebrating. Having won a governing trifecta for the first time in nearly half a century, Michigan Democrats are moving with real urgency to implement a progressive and pro-worker agenda. And rather than equivocating or trying to frame that agenda in purely managerial terms, liberal lawmakers like Weiss, Camilleri, and Andrews are actually defending it with clarity and ideological confidence.

Elected Democrats winning political power and wielding it to expand basic rights while rolling back draconian legislation imposed by the Right. What a thought.