WASHINGTON -- A lot of people would think the passage of right-to-work legislation in union-stronghold Michigan signifies broader troubles for an embattled labor movement. But Richard Trumka, head of the AFL-CIO labor federation, said he thinks that Gov. Rick Snyder's (R) signing of the controversial anti-union bill suggests greater troubles for the GOP.
"It tells you what one of the major problems of the Republican Party is," Trumka told The Huffington Post in an interview on Michigan and the labor movement more generally. "They are controlled by the Tea Party extreme right, and the leadership doesn't know how to stand up to them. A weak guy like Snyder doesn't know how to stand up to them."
Trumka was on the ground in Michigan earlier this month as the Republican-led legislature fast-tracked a pair of right-to-work bills through a lame-duck session. Right-to-work laws forbid contracts between companies and unions that require all workers to pay the union for bargaining on their behalf. The laws essentially allow workers to opt out of supporting the union even though they reap the benefits of the union's collective bargaining -- dealing a financial blow to labor.
Snyder, who's been widely seen as a moderate Republican with bipartisanship leanings, had previously said he had no interest in pursuing what turned out to be a deeply divisive policy, sparking mass protests by union supporters outside the capitol and a condemnation from President Barack Obama. The governor's reversal left observers wondering whether he'd simply caved to anti-union business interests or instead revealed core economic policy beliefs.
Trumka seems to believe it was more the former than the latter.
"If those were his principles," Trumka said of Snyder's earlier ambivalence to right-to-work, "then he flushed them because they threatened him. And that will be the undoing of the Republican Party."
The right-to-work law in Michigan was just the latest in a series of Republican-led, state-level measures that have kept organized labor on its heels in recent years. Wisconsin passed legislation last year that rolled back the collective bargaining rights of many of the state's public-sector workers, a move that prompted a high-profile but ultimately unsuccessful recall effort against Gov. Scott Walker (R). A similar measure was passed in Ohio but later overturned by voters at the ballot box, in what unions hailed as a major victory.
Trumka argues that those measures were largely the fallout of the 2010 elections that brought Republican governors into office in midwestern states, and that they don't signify changing perceptions about the significance of unions or collective bargaining, at least among the general public.
"What you're basically seeing is the tail end of the 2010 election -- Wisconsin, Ohio and Michigan," Trumka said. "When you look at collective bargaining itself, when people got a chance to vote on collective bargaining, Ohio is probably the only place where you had a head-to-head vote, and we won [61 to 39 percent] in that."
That said, he concedes unions are not winning the larger messaging battle, failing to make the case for the necessity of collective bargaining in the broader economy.
"Not yet, no," Trumka said. "But we're talking about that. And it's not just the messaging war. You can have the perfect message and still be the imperfect deliverer. What we're trying to do is tailor the right messages with the right union movement."
Trumka said the AFL-CIO is working to change the way it recruits activists and brings young people into the labor movement. In previous years, he said, "we talked at them, we didn't talk with them" about how they thought collective bargaining could improve their circumstances for the better.
That evolving attitude also includes organizing workers in non-traditional frameworks to adapt to the modern economy, he said. He offered the example of the National Taxi Workers Alliance, which joined the AFL-CIO in 2011 as a rare non-union affiliate. Taxi drivers in New York City are considered independent contractors with multiple employers, and are therefore exempted from many labor law protections, making it difficult to organize as a traditional union.
"We're organizing them together and trying to get them a better wage from all the employers they deal with," Trumka said. "We're figuring out ways to deliver benefits to them, and ways for us to change to be more relevant and effective for them. That's going to be a big part of the future for us."
So, of course, are the 2014 elections, particularly in the midwestern states where unions have been fighting fierce legislative battles. With regard to Ohio, Trumka said he would be happy to see former Democratic Gov. Ted Strickland, who lost narrowly to sitting Gov. John Kasich (R) in 2010, throw his hat in the ring. Strickland is reportedly still considering another run.
"Strickland was a great governor," Trumka said. "He's a good man, an honest man, and he cares deeply about the citizens of Ohio. I think he would be a wonderful candidate and a wonderful governor again."
As for Michigan, unions started plotting an election day payback on Snyder almost as soon as the ink dried on the right-to-work bill. Trumka, who conceded that Snyder may have been emboldened by the failed recall on Walker in Wisconsin, said he believes it's important that a message be sent to governors who champion or abet legislation hostile to collective bargaining.
"We've already started that," Trumka said of a mobilization in Michigan. "Our unions are beginning to have a conversation with their members, starting to educate them from the ground level up on the economy, on power, on workers, about friends and about enemies. That's a conversation that will only accelerate as we go forward, in a very significant way.
"And it's not just Michigan," he added.