Gov. Gretchen Whitmer speaks at the opening of a new training facility in Wayland, April 29, 2019 | Nick Manes
The Monday grand opening of a $15 million training facility in West Michigan for unionized tradespeople comes at a tough time for labor in Michigan.
But labor leaders and Democratic officials are hopeful that the new 67,000-square foot training facility in Wayland, south of Grand Rapids, could serve as a beacon for rejuvenating organized labor’s presence in the region and around the state.
Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Lansing) and others attended the center’s ribbon cutting on Monday.
As Michigan continues to struggle with an overall shortage of workers, the state has unleashed a flurry of workforce development programs. But Democratic elected officials and labor leaders say that more training by unionized industry, rather than the government, could help fill the pipeline of workers.
“It’s been our experience that [government] isn’t that good at [training],” said Mike Jackson, executive secretary and treasurer of the Michigan Regional Council of Carpenters and Millwrights (MRCC), which built the Wayland facility.
“I agree,” Whitmer chimed in during a Monday morning news conference.
But to do so, unions like Jackson’s will have to overcome years of adverse policy and declining membership as they seek to bolster their own membership.
In 2013, Michigan, often seen as the birthplace of organized labor, became a Right to Work state. Now workers don’t have to join a union to receive its benefits. Republicans have backed measures across the country as a means to weaken the power of both unions and the Democratic Party.
Last summer, Michigan’s GOP-led Legislature adopted a ballot initiative repealing the state’s prevailing wage law, which mandated union-level wages be paid for some publicly-financed construction projects, such as public education facilities. Then-Gov. Rick Snyder opposed the move, but governors are unable to veto citizen-initiated laws adopted by the Legislature.
On top of those big policy shifts, unions in Michigan and around the country have experienced declining membership overall. Data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics shows that about 19 percent of Michiganders belonged to a union in 2008, falling to 14.5 percent by 2018.
In 2018, Michigan was still above the national average, however, where just 10.5 percent of people are unionized.
West Michigan — which has historically had lower rates of unionization than the more labor-heavy Southeast corner of the state — has about 5.5 percent of its workforce unionized, according to data from The Right Place Inc., a West Michigan economic development organization.
Tod Sandy, facility coordinator and floor covering instructor for the Wayland training center, hopes that by establishing a large presence in the West Michigan area, the union can bolster its ranks in the region.
“There’s a bit of a deficit here on this side of the state and that’s what this facility is all about,” Sandy told the Advance in an interview. “We’re trying to increase the man-hours for our members and make ourselves available to the contractors in the area. So it’s marketing, it’s recruitment and it’s building numbers.”
A report earlier this month by the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a Midland-based free-market think tank, noted that the state’s large unions have seen declines in membership since 2012 and a loss in revenue of at least $20 million since that same time.
Skilled trades training
But labor leaders like Jackson say that investments in new training facilities — like the MRCC’s recently announced $30 million center in Detroit — and programs serve as proof that Michigan unions have staying power.
“We’re in a growth period right now. They’ve held that Right to Work and prevailing wage [repeal] would be death blows. They’re certainly not helpful, but having the best training at the best value is what’s going to keep us in the game,” Jackson said.
“This is key to no matter what the opposition … throws at us. We don’t understand it. I’ve had that conversation with many of our free market Republican friends,” he continued. “We are the free market. We pay for our own training.”
Whitmer has continued Snyder’s support for skilled trades training. She’s made workforce development a key policy priority of her administration.
The Wayland facility could help with “closing the damn skills gap,” as Whitmer put it on Monday, a play on her signature campaign stump speech line of “fixing the damn roads.”
Earlier this month, Whitmer and a bipartisan group of legislators held a news event to tout bills that would create two new programs championed by the governor during her first State of the State address in February.
The programs — MI Opportunity Scholarship and Michigan Reconnect — aim to bolster the state’s skilled workforce numbers by offering more pathways to postsecondary certificates and associate’s degrees. They’ve also won backing from some business groups.
Whitmer and others at Monday’s news conference were quick to note that the Wayland training facility — as well as two others the union is building in Marquette and Detroit — are privately funded.
“We at the state didn’t do anything to contribute to this,” Whitmer said. “But we in the state are all benefiting.”
Stabenow also stressed that point.
“This is privately funded. That means that the people in this building, and the business partners, are really committed to building the middle class,” Stabenow said. “And it’s not just talking about it. It’s putting literally their money where everybody’s mouth is.”
As Whitmer turns toward unions like the MRCC to help with her workforce development policy goals, members of the state Legislature are also hoping to reclaim some of the past labor glory the state was long known for.
As the Advance has previously reported, members of the Legislature have convened the state’s first Legislative Labor Caucus in decades. Chaired by state Rep. Brian Elder (D-Bay City), the caucus is in the process of courting members from both sides of the aisle and establishing a legislative agenda.
The first bills submitted from members would repeal Right to Work — a law that’s still backed by the GOP majority and is unlikely to even receive a hearing.
In an interview with the Advance earlier this month, Elder said that he expects some level of bipartisan support for the caucus, however. He pointed to areas of agreement between Democrats and Republicans for workforce development. He said there’s some bipartisan support for collective bargaining rights and more specifically, noted that many districts are working-class in their makeup, even if they’re not heavily unionized.
“There are lots of members that maybe they don’t have a strong organized labor presence in their districts, but their districts are working-class districts,” Elder said. “That’s something that really kind of unifies us.”
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