- Interview by
- Nick French
Earlier this year, Democrats in Michigan’s state legislature broke with Democratic Party norms by actually using their elected offices to push through a suite of significant pro-worker legislation. This included rolling back the right-to-work law that Michigan passed in 2012, making Michigan the first state in more than fifty years to do so.
Joey Andrews, elected to the state house in 2022 to represent District 38 in southwestern Michigan, championed the repeal of right to work and other pro-union policies, like restoring teachers’ bargaining rights. Jacobin’s Nick French spoke with Andrews about Michigan Democrats’ recent legislative record, the relationship between labor and the Democratic Party, and the current moment in working-class politics more broadly.
What inspired you to run for state representative?
I got really involved politically locally after the tail end of the 2016 election — like a lot of people inspired by the horror that was the Donald Trump campaign — to try to do everything possible to stop him from being president. When that was unsuccessful, I got involved with my local Democratic Party, and specifically with the community in Benton Harbor.
The district I represent is the southwest coastline of Michigan, running from Saugatuck to New Buffalo. It includes the city of Benton Harbor, which is a roughly 90 percent African American community surrounded by significantly whiter communities. What we saw during 2016 was low turnout in the black community. I started getting involved there trying to understand what the root cause of that was, and I got to understand a lot of political and societal neglect that the community had been experiencing that was discouraging them from participating in the political process.
That was my entry into politics. I ran for an old version of the seat in 2018. Before we had nonpartisan redistricting fix a lot of things, the district was substantially gerrymandered. So we got close, but not close enough. The idea was, nobody had really tried, and we wanted to actually run a real campaign and see what would happen if we did that. We ran a pretty progressive campaign, I would say, and moved the needle from 38 percent to 45 percent.
After that, I went to work for the Michigan Democratic Party for the 2020 cycle, completing that promise to myself that I was going to do whatever I could to stop Donald Trump. During that cycle, I was part of an effort to unionize the campaign staff on the Michigan Democratic Party side.
This was the campaign for Joe Biden?
It was the Michigan coordinated campaign — it was Biden’s campaign, but it was also the Michigan campaign; it was a hybrid thing. We were all employed by the state, but after the primaries wrapped up, we were quasi-working for Biden, as well as the state of Michigan.
A few organizers and I ended up doing a card signing and unionized with one of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) locals in Michigan, and then had among the most aggressive antibargaining processes that I’ve seen with the state party. A lot of, “We don’t have the money for that. We can’t do that kind of stuff.” And then after the contract was signed, they did a bunch of that stuff anyway, just not in the contract. So when future campaigns unionized, they didn’t have it in writing — just a lot of real nonsense. And they dragged the bargaining out for months.
After I finished that campaign, I had the revelation that the real movement was in labor, not the Democratic Party. So I went to work for the Michigan AFL-CIO. At that point, I was its West Michigan political director. I also did some work as a policy analyst for the organization at the time, on labor policy, because I’m an attorney. So I had a hybrid role with it, both doing labor organizing and working on state and local prolabor policy.
After the nonpartisan redistricting wrapped up in 2021, the district here was much more competitive. We decided to take another shot at it, and this time we were successful.
This revelation that the real movement is in labor — was that your first time feeling a deep connection to the labor movement or being inspired to participate in it?
Not entirely. I ran a pretty prolabor campaign in 2018 as well. My mom’s dad, my grandfather on her side, was a German immigrant after the war. When he came over here, he got a job as a union carpenter, and was able to raise four kids on a single primary income. My grandmother did some seamstressing on the side, but was basically a stay-at-home mom. My grandfather died prematurely in the early ’80s, a few years before he would have retired, and his union pension kept my grandmother in her house until the day she died.
Then, on my dad’s side, my great-grandfather was a United Auto Workers (UAW) member for Studebaker, in South Bend. He was on the bargaining committee, and he was the bargaining chair. Even after he retired, he would often come back and help with contract bargaining for the UAW down there.
So there’s a lot of labor history in my family, and seeing what a union pension and what a union wage can do for a family and the result of that, so I’ve always bent that way. But I had always operated under the assumption that labor and the Democratic Party were more or less in alignment. After my experience with our state party in 2020, I had the revelation that labor was the movement; the party was not the movement.
I wanted to talk about your time in office so far, and efforts by yourself and allies in the Michigan legislature — repealing Michigan’s right-to-work law, in particular, but also other reforms that you all pushed for successfully.
This is our first Democratic trifecta in forty years in Michigan, in large part because prior to the nonpartisan redistricting, the Republicans did a very good job of gerrymandering, the state’s senate in particular. We won a trifecta in 1982. Then mid-1983, the Democratic trifecta passed a tax increase. The Republicans did a recall against two state senators that was successful and broke the trifecta. From that point forward, we never controlled the Senate again.
We controlled the state house during the Clinton administration for about half of that time, and then from about 2006 to 2010 we controlled the state house. But the Senate had been perpetually gerrymandered out of our hands, basically, since the 1980s. That includes after the 2018 election, when Governor Gretchen Whitmer won the state by ten points, and we did not win either a state house or state senate majority. So that’s a very effective gerrymander.
In the intervening forty years, the Republicans made good use of their periodic trifectas to do a lot of damage to organized labor — a lot of attacks against the teachers’ unions during the ’90s and the early 2000s. Then, under the Rick Snyder administration, right to work, the repeal of prevailing wage laws, and various other limitations on labor unions’ abilities to operate.
So for me, and I think for a lot of us coming in, repeal of right to work was priority number one. Michigan is a labor state; we’re the birthplace of the UAW. What I told a lot of people when they asked about the repeal, was that we’ve been a right-to-work state for ten years — this is the anomaly. Michigan historically has not been a right-to-work state. This was something that never should have been in the first place.
We did that very early on — one of our first big legislative accomplishments, along with reinstating the prevailing wage. We just recently restored teachers’ bargaining rights and restored the ability for teachers to have their union dues automatically deducted from their checks, something that only teachers’ unions had taken from them in Michigan.
There’s a lot more to do. I’ve personally got a bill to repeal the local preemption law that keeps cities and townships from passing minimum wage, paid sick leave, all of that stuff. It’s referred to as the “Death Star law” by labor. I’m hoping we’ll be moving that in the fall and undoing that. There’s also a bill going through that was part of a package I drafted that restores project labor agreements. We’ll hopefully be allowing project labor agreements to go back into effect.
But so far, all of this has been focused on undoing damage. Hopefully over coming terms, we’ll maintain these majorities and start expanding labor and organizing rights, instead of just taking us back to where we were in the early ’90s.
What would you like to see happen on that front, in terms of expanding organizing rights?
I’d like to see us pass something like a workers’ bill of rights in Michigan: not just repeal right to work but actually codify the right to bargain, and do some things around reclassification of workers. There’s a real problem with workers being misclassified independent contractors and that sort of thing when they’re actually just employees. We have some bills in the legislature right now on that.
I’m also fairly interested in taking a look at just-cause legislation. Especially in COVID, we all got a lesson that a lot of these big corporations would be happy to have you die on the shop floor, as long as they’re squeezing a few more dollars in profit out. Being able to say, “No, I’m gonna stay home with my sick family and not worry about getting fired for it” — I think that’s pretty good.
I’m also interested in seeing if we can work out some sort of codetermination framework. The National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) makes that complicated, to say the least. But we’re having some conversations around what that might look like, maybe having some more shop floor–level codetermination, even if we can’t do it more broadly until the PRO Act is passed.
It’s an exciting moment for labor now, in some ways. Union density nationally is still at a historic low point. But there’s union effort underway at Starbucks across the country. The UAW is under reform leadership, getting ready for a likely strike; the Teamsters just won a fairly historic contract; it seemed like they were on the verge of a strike. There’s the big strike in Hollywood with the writers’ and actors’ unions. And union favorability among the public is at an all-time high, with a lot of workers wanting to join unions.
I’m curious if you have any thoughts on what’s explaining this moment of heightened interest in unions and, in some places at least, organizing activity.
I think it’s a couple of things. One, COVID played a big part in it. Again, everybody got to see with their own eyes that the “We’re a family here” language only extended so far. Coming out of that period, I think everybody has been a little more attuned to how they’re being treated in the workplace and what their wages look like.
I also think there’s a cyclical nature to some of this. We saw under Reagan in the ’80s a real attack on organized labor, and then a twenty-five- to thirty-year decline. But what’s happened since then is that my generation, millennials [came of age], and then Gen Z are now coming into their twenties. . . . We all got to see our parents and grandparents benefit from pensions and the protections that unions fought for, and we ourselves have not gotten to benefit from those things, because they were taken away.
So I think that among our generations, there’s this renewed sentiment that you need a union to protect you, you need a union to bargain for better benefits and better wages, because corporations are not going to give you those things out of the goodness of their hearts. Also, we’ve watched corporate greed destroy the planet, just running away unchecked. So I don’t know that anybody’s on the side of big corporations these days.
There’s 70 to 75 percent favorability in polls for unions right now. And as these union fights are resolved, we’re starting to see exactly why unions are good. The Teamsters contract is a prime example. I also think there’s been changes in the labor movement that have helped contribute to this. The labor movement of the ’80s did fall into some . . . I don’t want to say decadence. But there were definitely some problems at the top of some of the bigger labor unions in the ’80s. There was a lot of “I got mine” sentiment going on.
We’re seeing, with this new rank-and-file movement that’s taking over the modern labor movement, that the UPS contract didn’t just bargain for wages for the bargaining unit; it also extended it to part-timers. The union fought to get rid of the two-tier system. The UAW negotiations right now — [union president] Shawn Fain made it pretty clear that getting rid of the two-tier system is one of his highest priorities. I think that that sort of expanded solidarity is a big part of this too.
I’ve talked to Republicans who said flat out that they thought that UPS was in the wrong. The fact that drivers didn’t have air-conditioning — it’s not a place that you want to be arguing from. I was on the picket line when Kellogg went on strike a couple of years ago; I was working for the AFL-CIO at the time, and that was in my organizing region. So I was down there pretty regularly, helping to coordinate schedules and that sort of thing and bring in people from around the state. We saw not just solidarity among the workers at the plant, but also the community around them, the people in Battle Creek, in the surrounding communities, donating food and money to help sustain the strike fund.
Near the end of the strike, Kellogg cut off the health insurance for the workers. So we had doctors and medical centers that stepped up and were providing free medical services to workers. Again, you want to talk about the depravity of some of these corporations — they had workers who were on cancer treatment whose health insurance they cut off. Anyway, I think we’re seeing that the communities are more attuned to this too. They know that people are being taken advantage of, and they’re sick of it.
Given all the prolabor sentiment and labor activity that’s happening right now, what do you think of Joe Biden and the Democrats’ record, both in Michigan and nationally? What do you think they’re doing well, and do you have any criticisms?
I have been pretty impressed with Biden’s labor stances. Pushing the PRO Act, I think, is incredibly important; his appointments to the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) — God knows how many decades since we’ve had people from the labor side manning the board instead of the corporate side. And the great decisions that the NLRB is handing down right now are demonstrative of that.
Beyond that, though, the federal government has been completely ineffectual. The unwillingness to repeal the filibuster in order to pass the PRO Act and other important pieces of legislation. . . . When you care more about short-term institutional foundations than you do actual people’s living conditions and rights, I think there’s something fundamentally broken in the system. I don’t have a whole lot of faith in the federal government at this current time to fix a lot of this stuff. At the state level, though, we’ve seen a lot of good things happening around the country, Michigan prime among them.
The thing I worry about is that as the parties are realigning right now, we’re seeing the traditional Democratic base of blue-collar workers aligning themselves more and more with Republicans. On the flip side, suburbanites, like in my district, are increasingly aligning themselves with the Democrats. And a lot of this is along, I think, social-issue axes.
What has concerned me is that the average Democrat and the average Democratic elected official are becoming further and further removed from labor as a movement. By and large, we all still recognize that unions are important, but I think many elected Democrats don’t understand the “why” of it quite as much. That’s something that worries me over the long term, because my politics centers around workers and working families. It’s a lens that I interpret everything through, whether it’s criminal justice reform issues, labor and organizing, or energy.
That’s something that concerns me quite a bit, and that I worry about long term in the Democratic Party: how much our party is going to keep that focus. On the flip side, the Republicans have made zero overtures to labor and if anything have gotten more corporate over time, so it’s an odd space to be in right now.
The states are sort of laboratories of democracy; we have a lot of opportunities to test out new labor policies and ideas in the states and share ideas. Minnesota and Michigan right now have been doing a lot on that front. Aside from the governor’s veto, Minnesota almost got rid of the really unfair labor practices in the gig industry. That’s something we could all learn a lot from.
Keeping our politics centered on workers is important. I think we still have a chance to win back a lot of those workers; the party’s just gotten too far away from them. And Donald Trump tapped into this grievance that exists among blue-collar workers right now, feeling left behind, neglected. The North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) was a Democratic initiative that was really bad for workers. The Republicans have tapped into a grievance, but they haven’t really delivered on the promise of that grievance. The Democrats in Michigan, with our trifecta, have the opportunity to actually demonstrate to workers again, that we’re going to be the party that takes care of working people; we’re going to do the things that prioritize your jobs, your wages, your family.
That’s a major concern of us here at Jacobin; we often use the term “class dealignment” to talk about it. At least rhetorically, on some of these issues like NAFTA and free trade, Trump was willing to break with corporate orthodoxy. And it’s still a minority, but there are some Republicans who have this economic populist brand, like Marco Rubio and Josh Hawley.
I worry a lot about it. Because right now we’re seeing things polarized along education lines, rather than around class lines. That’s dangerous for the Democratic Party, because at the end of the day, people with college degrees only make up 30 percent of the population. You need a broader coalition than people with college educations. We’re starting to see black men become disaffected with the Democratic Party; Latino and Hispanic voters becoming disaffected with the Democratic Party.
Class struggle is fundamental to everything we do. The ability of corporations and the ultrawealthy to keep working people fighting with each other along racial lines and even education lines is only to their benefit. It’s incumbent on us to demonstrate that the average working-class white man has more in common with the average working-class black man than either of them do with Donald Trump or Elon Musk or whoever.
You talked about Michigan getting its first Democratic trifecta in decades and how you all are trying to use that moment to push forward all of this prolabor legislation. But a lot of states often have Democratic trifectas, and you don’t see the same kind of movement. Why, do you think, is Michigan making use of its trifecta to support workers in ways other state Democratic parties have not?
Some of it is Michigan’s labor history. Unions are integral to our state’s identity in a lot of ways.
But I also think urgency is a big part of it. We won this trifecta, but it’s narrow: we have a one-vote majority in the House, two votes in the Senate. At any given time, in any given election, we could lose one or two seats and lose our trifecta. So I think a big part of it is that a lot of us view this with urgency — that if we don’t get this stuff done, we might not be able to ever get it done.
Virginia really stood out as a lesson on that. Legislators had the opportunity to repeal right-to-work laws and declined to do it. And now, Democrats are hanging on to the Virginia Senate by a thread and hoping to win back their House of Delegates this year. They have to wait two years to even have a shot at a trifecta again.
Minnesota taught us that lesson a little bit too. We heard from some of them that when they had their last Democratic trifecta, they felt like they played it too safe and then had a hard time making the case to their constituents and to their voters that they should be reelected. They lost their trifecta, and then it took them a decade to get it back. In Minnesota, they’re viewing this with a lot more urgency because they know that they could lose it at any given moment.
When you have a state like, say, California, New York, or Washington, that has a permanent trifecta built into it, and the bureaucratic nature of that starts playing a role — you get factions within the party that start fighting over minutiae. Competitive elections are important, even though I really don’t want to see Republicans hold power, particularly at the moment. But I think it’s important that you have that push behind you to say you’ve got to deliver for your voters, because they’re not just going to automatically vote you in.