You are viewing this article in the archives. For the latest breaking news and updates in Ann Arbor and the surrounding area, see
Posted on Mon, Sep 3, 2012 : 5:57 a.m.

Top 5: Labor Day observations on the state of labor movement Washtenaw County

By Ben Freed


University of Michigan nurses march during a contract dispute last summer.

Angela J. Cesere |

Labor Day, in many circles, seems to have devolved over the years from a day celebrating workers' rights to a holiday generally associated with barbeques and wearing white for the last time of the season.

According to the US Department of Labor website, Labor Day was intended to entail “a street parade to exhibit to the public ‘the strength and esprit de corps of the trade and labor organizations’ of the community.” The closest Labor Day parade to Washtenaw County is in Detroit, but this year's holiday seems an appropriate time to take stock of some of the trends affecting the local labor movement.

Here are five observations I’ve come to after talking with labor leaders and experts from around the county.

Just because you don’t see them doesn’t mean they aren’t active

Unions are pushing a ballot initiative to amend the Michigan Constitution to include a guaranteed right to collective bargaining. The "Protect Our Jobs" measure has been approved but also challenged, and should be decided early this month.

The vote would follow two years of Michigan policy changes - including the emergency manager law - that threaten the power of unions. At the same time, some in Michigan, including Representative Mike Shirkey (R-Clark Lake), have continued to push for "Right To Work" laws that restrict the ability of unions to operate in the state.

Governor Rick Snyder has attempted to chart a middle course. He has urged lawmakers to refrain from authoring legislation that would restrict collective bargaining rights while at the same time discouraged the unions from attempting to enshrine those rights in the state constitution. Snyder says that both efforts are too incendiary for the current political climate.

Yet on-the-ground labor disputes have been few and far between in Washtenaw County over the past few years. Fred Veigel and Wesley Prater, the president and vice-president of the Huron Valley Central Labor Council, said the last picket line they participated in was more than two years ago due to a dispute over the use of non-union construction workers.

However, just because they aren’t in the news, doesn’t mean that they aren’t very active behind the scenes.

“I’ve been on both sides of the equation, and even when I was a manager, I preferred to work with unions,” Prater said.

“If it’s working properly and you get good leadership in the union and leadership from the administration of the company, it all seems to go better.”


The county welcomes the UA and other unions every year as they run training programs at local campuses.

Angela Cesere |

Unions also have a built a strong presence in the community and have a good measure popular support. Multiple unions, including the UA, ironworkers union, and electricians hold training programs for their instructors in the county. These events bring much-needed money into the local economy during the summer when students desert the streets.

Roland Zullo, a research scientist at the Institute for Research on Labor, Employment, and the Economy at the University of Michigan, said that despite a lack of significant heavy manufacturing, Washtenaw County has a stronger union movement than most of the rest of the state.

“A part of why we have such a strong union movement here is the many large service sector employers,” he said.

“For services, especially education and health-care we’ve seen a growth nationwide in union membership, and we obviously have a lot of those employees here in the county.”

Michigan just saw a jump in statewide union involvement

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, between 2001 and 2010 the percentage of employed Michiganders represented by unions fell from 22.1 to 17.3 percent. During that same period, Michigan's total number of employed citizens fell from 4.48 million to 3.79 million, a loss of more than 650,000 jobs.

That fall coincided with declines in the auto industry that led to Michigan’s economy becoming a national punch-line. Veigel said the correlation is no coincidence.

“It’s no surprise that union jobs go down when the economy goes down,” he said.

“We lead into depressions and out of them. It’s not just the building and remodeling that we do, it’s everything that we handle: the paint, the pipes, the refrigerators, everything.”

The rate of union representation jumped back up to 18.3 percent in 2011. That jump has coincided with a leveling off Michigan's job hemorrhage. According to BLS data, Michigan's number of employed residents bottomed out in 2009 at 3.79 million jobs and has risen slowly the past two years. Michigan's unemployment rate also peaked in 2009 at 14.2 percent and has been slowly dropping since (with the exception of small increases the past three months).

Local numbers for union participation aren't available, but the Ann Arbor area also saw its lowest employment numbers in mid-to-late 2009. The region has consistently outpaced the state and non-seasonaly adjusted numbers indicated that there were 172,147 employees in the area leading to an unemployment rate of 6.8%

Liberal politicians make unions happy…

A large number of Washtenaw County union members are in public-sector unions. These unions negotiate directly with the government, and politicians who are committed to working with the unions make it much easier for them to succeed.

“What I’ve been impressed with is the willingness by the county to sit down and negotiate and work with the public employees rather than resorting to more draconian methods when there are budget difficulties,” Zullo said.

“The other approach is to slash the public workforce and rely on private contractors. This is a key determinant as to whether or not the unions exist.”

The willingness of unions to work with officials has also helped relations between the two sides. Earlier this month the Ypsilanti teachers agreed to take a 12.7 percent cut in pay and benefits as part of cost-cutting measures in the district.

…as do large universities.

The University of Michigan is the largest single employer in the county, and Zullo said they are constantly involved in negotiations with various unions.

“I believe [they] negotiate with seven different labor unions,” he said.

While Eastern Michigan University’s negotiations with their various unions have at times been tense , they, along with U-M and Washtenaw Community College, tend to work with unions not only when it comes to employment, but also for campus construction.

“One of the biggest factors for union’s health is the construction industry,” Greg Stephens, business manager at IBEW electrician’s union Local 252, said.

Zullo agreed, and added that the commitment by local universities to hire union workers for their construction has helped ease the pain during the recession.

High-tech workers not joining the unions… yet

One of the fastest growing industries in the county, especially in downtown Ann Arbor, is the high-tech sector. It is extremely rare to find workers organizing in these newer companies and union organizers say they aren’t surprised.

“As long as they’re treating people well and paying them a decent salary with benefits, you won’t see unions organizing,” Veigel said.

“But if the leaders of these companies start getting greedy and lining their pockets at the expense of the workers, you see them start to organize.”

Some unionizing efforts have begun in Silicon Valley, Zullo said, but it’s primarily among temporary tech workers.

“The other reason the tech industry might start to organize is to protect the rights of older workers,” he said.

“Historically, seniority rights has been a major motivator for workers to organize. My image from outside the industry is that tech companies are always trying to bring in the freshest youngest talent. It will be interesting to see how some of the workers who are more senior are treated.”

Ben Freed covers business for Reach him at 734-623-2528 or email him at Follow him on twitter @BFreedinA2


Jeffersonian Liberal

Tue, Sep 4, 2012 : 1:12 p.m.

Unions were founded in the values of communism, they and their cronies in the democrat party want to eliminate all choice by their members. They want to eliminate the secret ballot so that their thugs can coerce their members to vote as they wish. Union backed politicians have bankrupted states and municipalities with unfunded pension plans while fat cat union bosses live like kings. Unions have no place in the public sector, even FDR knew this. And by the way, Right to work simply allows the employee to decide whether to unionize without the heavy hand of government forcing a business owner to do so!


Mon, Sep 3, 2012 : 8:02 p.m.

When the teachers unions are gone and the education "industry" has been privatized, there will be a few incredibly wealthy "executives" running the show at the top (Green's quarter of million will seem like peanuts), while most of the Labor - that is, the folks who actually teach kids - will be riding the edge of poverty, unable to pay a mortgage or even a dentist. School will be a lot like going to Wallmart - you'll be greeted at the door by a toothless vagrant, happy not to be terminated by the boss before day's end. Your kids will trained by desperate fools. And the conservatives of Michigan will be glad for an end to the "tyranny of the union."

Tom Todd

Mon, Sep 3, 2012 : 10:51 p.m.

I'll take a president worth $4million over a president worth over $250million.

Basic Bob

Mon, Sep 3, 2012 : 10:29 p.m.

@Tom Todd, since when is a 1% carpetbagging executive from two states away suddenly "middle class"?

Tom Todd

Mon, Sep 3, 2012 : 8:20 p.m.

Republican are using class war fare as a way for middle class people to be jealous of other middle class people who may be teachers/police/municipal worker/etc so the rich can gain more wealth for themselves how does that help your housing value/neighborhood/crime/schools it hurts! the rich don't care they don't live in your communities but middle class people are lapping it up as the gospel.


Mon, Sep 3, 2012 : 6:46 p.m.

Catch 22. If there is no threat of unions then corporate greed takes over, but if union greed takes over it would drive the people that feed them out of business or send jobs overseas. A world without unions would look like the late 1800s ( no middle class) ,but a world dominated by unions would look like the late Soviet Union. How about good pay for workers that show up every day and work hard? Unfortunately the darker parts of humanity come out when money is involved.


Mon, Sep 3, 2012 : 8:44 p.m.

Tom The sword cuts both ways --- Unions should fight for better wages etc, but they need to let the slackers go. I personally know worker that do what ever they can to avoid giving an honest days work for an honest days wage. Some of them are my children's teachers. the union motto be " good wages for good work". Get ride of the slackers and pay good people well.

Tom Todd

Mon, Sep 3, 2012 : 8:09 p.m.

when everyone has no job then maybe we will not be jealous of our neighbors and actually see the rich republicans ruined this country.

Dog Guy

Mon, Sep 3, 2012 : 5:38 p.m.

Happy Labor Day! Let us never forget the sainted Reuther brothers who traveled to the Evil Empire for instruction from those who had hijacked the Russian Revolution. Unions not only hijack over a billion dollars a year in federal tax monies to spend as they will (often in buying politicians to hijack laws), but they also hijack a federal holiday. A day honoring laborers is now claimed as honoring unions. As one of their founding fathers wrote, "A lie repeated often enough becomes the truth." As a union member, I remind all that Thanksgiving Day is set aside to thank unions for their blessings . . . much as July 4 is a holiday honoring those who secured collective bargaining with King George. Again, Happy Labor Union Day!


Mon, Sep 3, 2012 : 6:44 p.m.

How do Unions hijack all that money? By the way, the Communist Unions were the best to belong to as their officials never made more than the highest paid worker.


Mon, Sep 3, 2012 : 4:33 p.m.

Not a single CEO of a failed bank that caused the crash of 08 has been sent to jail, but those guys are exactly the crooks who sent the economy into the recession we're suffering through. And how many unions have been busted since then? Plenty, and more will be busted. Can you say, "Scapegoat?"


Tue, Sep 4, 2012 : 12:17 a.m.

Does Jimmy Hofa ring a bell?


Mon, Sep 3, 2012 : 7:27 p.m.

We can thank the group in power in DC for this. How many billions did Obama's ole bud Jon Corzine make disappear and what will Jon get for this? A spot in Obama's government again counseling the Democrats on sound financial measures and practices.


Mon, Sep 3, 2012 : 3:43 p.m.

Do the naysayers realize how many people were killed trying to organize Unions? They were killed by the fat cats who owned these businesses who forced their workers to work long hours in unsafe conditions for low pay. The workers literally put their lives on the line because they were basically treated like slaves by their rich bosses. Now the 1% and their misguided followers want to make the Union movement go away by legislating it out of existence. After the rise of the Unions this country became the strongest and most powerful in the world fueled by its middle class. Now the 1% is trying and suceeding to build their wealth by cutting Unions, getting rid of those pesky regulations that stymie their wealth building, enacting a tax code that hugely favors them, and essentially buying an election with money from a small handfull of the mega rich. They are so brazen that their VP candidate outright lies in a nationally televised speech and afterward their followers ask for more cool aid. Labor Day celebrates working class heroes who put their lives on the line to build a better and more secure life for their families and themselves.

Tom Todd

Mon, Sep 3, 2012 : 8:07 p.m.

great comment, people say there republicans for what religion,abortion,guns,it's a joke republicans are for getting richer and sticking it to the less fortunate how some people vote republican is crazy look at Snyder he gave millionaires a tax break on our backs how has that helped the economy?republicans want to pay taxes to the tune of what a person making fifty grand a year pays not the same percentage.


Mon, Sep 3, 2012 : 3:42 p.m.

Don't get mislead by commercials. Get informed by a neutral analysis of ballot measures. The Mackinac Center has a review on the proposals on the ballot. The Protect our Jobs amendment is not good for Michigan. If passed it will be a huge barrier for a lot of business moving into Michigan, business who do not wish to deal with unions. The states that are recovering the most from the recession are doing just the opposite. I think one result of this law passing is more privatization of public sector employees. Here is an interesting video: The Battle for the Future on You Tube. Okay it is a Fox News video but try to ignore that and watch it. It is loaded with facts not opinions. Pay special attention to Part 3 on Sandy Springs, GA about privatization. Unfortunately unions are essential because of bad management. I suggest easing union control but have good worker protection laws. Unions were good when they were necessary but that time is over. All 50 states are competing with each other for jobs and if we don't do everything we can for jobs, we will keep seeing jobs move and open up in non union states. We will lose population and have to increases taxes significantly.

Susie Q

Tue, Sep 4, 2012 : 2:31 a.m.

Floyd is correct. The Mackinaw Center is anything but neutral in this debate. If you look at states that are Right to Work, you will find that they have many more citizens without health care insurance, lower wages, lower standard of living. Of course there have been union excesses, but Right to Work is not the answer. Right to Work will lower the standard of living in Michigan.


Mon, Sep 3, 2012 : 4:30 p.m.

The Mackinac Center is anything but "Center." It's a front-job for the far right establishment along Michigan's west coast. Who are their "patrons?" Think old money in Grand Rapids and Traverse City. Their transparent agenda has always been union busting and privatization.

Tom Todd

Mon, Sep 3, 2012 : 2:24 p.m.

Republican Mantra: attack the union worker who is somewhere in the middle class so a rich person can get ALL the money and pay minimum wage,this further erodes the economy/middle class/housing values,etc. and saves the Consumer Nothing.


Mon, Sep 3, 2012 : 9:15 p.m.

I couldn't agree more with your sentiments, Mick52 about taking care of one's employees and they'll take care of you and your company. Something that wise business tycoons such as Henry Ford have recognized for ages But in our largely unregulated laisse-faire type economy, penny wise-pound foolish-tonne stupid too often rules the day. Too often, CEOs, Boards and other execs could care less if the company survives and thrives or not. Their pay is so often so high regardless of how the company performs, why would they care? Too often, it is actually most profitable for them to drive their companies under, pocket gazillions doing it, declare bankrupcy, write it off and the like. They are then free to go forward and work at doing the same elsewhere (where they are likely to already be sitting on the Board or have an inside post at).... As pathological as it sounds, it is. The abuses and self-destructive behaviors I've seen go on in companies defies imagination. Scott Addam's "Dilbert" comic strip and movies like "Office Space" that portray such (often illegal) behavior would be funny if they were not so true....

Tom Todd

Mon, Sep 3, 2012 : 7:59 p.m.

of course you would, your republican, your jealous of your neighbors pay and benefits.


Mon, Sep 3, 2012 : 3:47 p.m.

That makes no sense at all. If you want your business to be successful you have to take care of your employees. If you compensate them with low compensation, you will lose them quickly and often. Probably the best way to organize a business is to have profit sharing so that employees are motivated to work well or have a merit pay or bonus program properly done so that an employee has an option to perform better to increase compensation. I am a Republican and I completely dismiss your claim.


Mon, Sep 3, 2012 : 1:40 p.m.

Funny how we have an 8%+ unemployment rate locally and 15% state wide and yet no one mentions all those promises back in 2008, almost forgot it was Bushes fault. I guess those that did keep jobs just happened to be unions, funny how that worked out.

Jake C

Mon, Sep 3, 2012 : 5:06 p.m.

Michigan's state-wide unemployment rate is 9% at most. Stop making things up, please.


Mon, Sep 3, 2012 : 3:52 p.m.

Like InsidetheHall mentions above those UAW workers can move down south and get non union jobs. It's better to have a non union job than be unemployed with a union card in your wallet.

Basic Bob

Mon, Sep 3, 2012 : 1:59 p.m.

Not funny to former UAW members and the construction trades, some were out of work or on reduced hours for years. Union members are not immune from unemployment at all. Public sector unions are far more lucky in that their work can't be easily reduced, although some can be outsourced (slowly).


Mon, Sep 3, 2012 : 1:07 p.m.

While the surrounding Midwest states implement Right to Work the bone head labor unions come up with a ballot proposal that will KILL Michigan. Ask yourself this: What prudent businessman will invest capital into Michigan if this ballot issue passes? The answer is none! This is the death blow to Michigan and for the future of our children in this state. Unions should be required by law to reveal the compensation packages of their leaders to the membership. If this happened you just might see Occupy the Union Hall! In fairness, the private sector unions get it and have implemented two tier wage scales and trimmed lavish benefits. However, the public sector unions MEA & AFSCME live in a fairyland in a time and place that left about 20 years ago. As I once proud UAW member it is sad to see how Michigan have fallen so far and the unions have contributed mightily to the fall. We didn't lose the auto industry to Mexico or China. We lost the auto industry to Kentucky, Tennesssee, Alabama, Mississippi, and the Carolinas.


Mon, Sep 3, 2012 : 11:55 p.m.

The cheap labor argument against Unions and for Right to Work is not valid. Companies really looking for cheap labor are moving out of the US and not to the south. From 1994 to 2012 Michigan had the third highest percent decline in jobs. The highest two states: North Carolina and Mississippi which are Right to work states. Of the 15 states that had the highest decline in net jobs, 8 are Right to Work. Just because you repeat false information will not eventually make it true.


Mon, Sep 3, 2012 : 9:15 p.m.

Ok Jake, then why isn't the battle being waged in China, Mexico, and the Southern states? Is it perhaps that those folks are grateful to find manual labor jobs providing them with a better lifestyle than they had before? Your race to the bottom just might be a rung higher on the ladder for these folks.

Angry Moderate

Mon, Sep 3, 2012 : 7:16 p.m.

Jake C- what you call a "race to the bottom", economists and businessmen call a "market competition."

Jake C

Mon, Sep 3, 2012 : 5:04 p.m.

"We lost the auto industry to Kentucky, Tennesssee, Alabama, Mississippi, and the Carolinas." Insightful statement. Factories moved from Michigan to China because it was cheaper, and because they could get away with labor abuses not allowed in Michigan. And factories moved from Michigan to Mississippi because it was cheaper, and because they could get away with labor abuses not allowed in Michigan. Michigan is pretty close to the bottom in terms of GDP. But most of the states you listed are far lower. All you're doing is encouraging a race to the bottom, to find who is willing to work for the least amount of money.


Mon, Sep 3, 2012 : 12:50 p.m.

Labor unions are nothing more than labor monopolies. The members of the unuion use work stoppages and other often illegal means to force higher wages than are economicaly justified. The simple explanation for consumers is that labor unions mean higher prices for everything made by unions! BTW: Obama didn't save the auto companies as they would have emerged from bankruptcy anyway. Obama saved the UAW and stuck the taxpayers with about 35 billion in debt to do so. Unions are only interested in their own pocket books!

Angry Moderate

Mon, Sep 3, 2012 : 7:15 p.m.

Floyd - I think you are misunderstanding what "monopoly" means. It is no secret that a union (especially in a closed shop) is a monopoly on labor. That's why they are exempt from antitrust laws.

Jake C

Mon, Sep 3, 2012 : 4:57 p.m.

"The members of the unuion use work stoppages and other often illegal means ..." Please explain how strikes and "other means" are illegal. It sounds like you're just making stuff up because you don't like unions.


Mon, Sep 3, 2012 : 4:39 p.m.

And corporations are nothing more than money and jobs monopolies. The simple explanation for consumers is that corporations owning all the jobs and money means their necks are under the giant boot of corporations (remember what Mitt says: "Corporations are people, my friend.").


Mon, Sep 3, 2012 : 12:38 p.m.

A fine salute to labor on Labor Day! Vote yes on election day to save our right to collectively bargain!