Big money rolls into Michigan Democrats from unions after Right-to-Work repeal
- Major unions stepped up spending this spring as Democrats pushed for Right-to-Work repeal
- Some say the giving is at a higher level than has been seen in years
- Democrats, who are advancing a host of pro-union policies, say the donations acknowledge shared values
LANSING — Unions in Michigan gave big to Democratic lawmakers as they advanced pro-labor policies this year, including a repeal of the state’s decade-old Right-to-Work law and restoration of the state’s prevailing wage, campaign finance reports show.
Between Jan. 1 and Apr. 20, union groups spent at least $657,900 on contributions to state lawmakers’ and Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s campaign accounts and associated PACs, according to a Bridge Michigan analysis of the latest campaign finance reports filed Apr. 25.
Of that, $648,500 — or 98.6 percent — went to Democrats, while $9,450 went to Republicans.
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Unions have long been major donors to Democrats, but this year, contributions among the state’s 10 biggest union spenders are far higher than comparable periods over the past five years, Bridge’s analysis found.
“It’s been almost 20 years that I’ve seen lobbying groups of any stripe … get this active,” said Jason Watts, Republican strategist and former treasurer of the Allegan County GOP.
Political groups often use the period after a general election to collect money and gear up for the next election, Watts said, but the donations show unions still have much left from November to spend.
“They smell blood in the water, and they are doubling down on Democrats,” Watts said of the unions. “I don’t see why they wouldn’t.”
Watts characterized the contributions as a “reward” for Democrats for passing pro-union bills, specifically the repeal of Right-to-Work, which overturned a 2012 law allowing workers to opt out of union dues but still enjoy union benefits. The law crippled union revenues and membership, which fell from 16.3 percent of workers in 2013 to 13.3 percent today.
Bridge reached out for comment to top union contributors, including the Michigan Regional Council of Carpenters and Millwrights, United Food and Commercial Workers in Michigan and the Service Employees International Union in Michigan. None responded.
Democrats said the money represents a commitment to their long-held values.
“I’ve spent most of my adult life in west Michigan representing injured workers and have a long history of helping union members,” said House Labor Committee Chair Jim Haadsma, D-Battle Creek, whose campaign received $9,250 from unions this spring, the third-most among lawmakers.
“I’ll continue to support unions regardless of any contribution because they’d made this state a better, safer, richer place to live.”
Officeholders are not required to report contributions to their individual campaigns until July in a non-election year under state law, making it hard to calculate how much they’ve received from union groups this year as opposed to other groups or individual donors.
Democrats took control of all branches of state government in January for the first time in nearly 40 years, and quickly moved to embrace labor causes.
Besides repealing Right-to-Work, they also restored prevailing wage, which requires contractors to pay union-scale wages and benefits on government-funded construction projects, including schools. Democrats also proposed legislation to extend tax credits to those who pay union dues, give public school teachers more bargaining power over performance evaluations and disciplinary actions, allow graduate research assistants to unionize, and more.
During deliberations on the Right-to-Work repeal, Republicans including Sen. Thomas Albert of Lowell predicted the legislation would result in more campaign donations to Democrats.
“This is basically a political fundraiser being launched at the state Capitol,” he said on the Senate floor on March 14.
Campaign records show union donations intensified as the repeal of Right-to-Work moved through the Legislature in March: 96 percent of union contributions — roughly $630,000 of the nearly $660,000 in union contributions in the last quarter came in March and April.
The political arm of Michigan Regional Council of Carpenters and Millwrights, which represents more than 14,000 workers, gave $167,000 between Jan. 1 and Apr. 20, the data shows.
That is almost twice the amount it gave — $89,000 — during the same time period last year. The PAC gave $62,750 within the first four months in 2021, $48,250 in 2020 and $84,900 in 2019, records show.
The Democratic legislative caucus funds — funds that can be used to support all Democratic lawmakers — received the most cash from union groups, records show.
The Senate and House Democratic funds received from unions a combined $398,250, all of which came in between March 16 and Apr. 20.
Several unions gave the Democratic funds the maximum $48,875 allowed under state campaign contribution limits. The SEIU in Michigan gave the maximum amount to both Democratic caucuses in late April, one month after Right to Work was repealed.
Watts said Republicans also benefited from big campaign contributions from “pro Right-to-Work groups” after they approved the law in 2012.
“To say this is new or somehow startling? No,” Watts said. “This is Lansing. This is politics.”
Greg Bowens, a Democratic consultant in Detroit, said unions likely stepped up spending in March and April to push for new policies “on the horizon” — not to react to the Right-to-Work repeal.
“We see a lot of fundraising associated … with what appear to be defeats or looming crises on the horizon, things of that nature,” he said. “In this case, the issue was settled.”
Key Democrats who pushed for Right-to-Work repeals were among the top recipients of union funds during the four-month period.
Building Bridges PAC, Whitmer’s leadership PAC, received $103,250 — the most among all leadership PACs — from just two union groups: $83,250 from the Michigan Regional Carpenters Council PAC and $20,000 from the United Food and Commercial Workers.
Mark Fisk, spokesperson for Building Bridges PAC, said Whitmer has received support from business groups, trade associations and organized labor alike. Indeed, in 2022 alone, 40 percent of Whitmer’s campaign donations from groups came from businesses, while 30 percent came from unions, Bridge has reported.
“Gov. Whitmer’s proven track record of supporting workers’ rights goes back to her early days in the Legislature and has continued in her role as governor when she joined the Michigan Legislature in restoring critical worker rights and cutting taxes to help working families,” Fisk said.
Leadership PACs and campaign committees tied to House Speaker Joe Tate, D-Detroit, and Senate Majority Leader Winnie Brinks, D-Grand Rapids, were also among PACs that received the most union contributions.
Brinks’ two leadership PACs — Brinks for Michigan and Brinks Majority Fund — received $13,000. Tate’s associated committees received $11,250.
“We are proud of the support of labor unions and the thousands of hard-working men and women who belong to those organizations,” AJ Ennis, finance director for the House Democratic Fund, told Bridge in a Thursday email.
“There is a strong history of support from these organizations to the Democratic Party and you will see that reflected in past contributions.”
On March 21 — the day House lawmakers voted to send the Right-to-Work repeal to Whitmer’s desk, the United Food and Commercial Workers’ Michigan PAC paid $2,500 in “ticket purchase” to Haadsma’s campaign committee, records show.
Haadsma told Bridge the record reflects UFCW Michigan’s sponsorship of a March 15 fundraiser for his 2024 campaign.
“I have represented many UFCW-referred clients over the years in my role as a workers’ disability compensation lawyer,” Haadsma said. “Like UFCW, I support the public policy of unencumbering workers to organize, and (I) too support concerted collective activity by robust labor unions.”
Businesses giving to Democrats
The Right-to-Work repeal legislation received opposition from prominent business groups, such as the Michigan Chamber of Commerce, the Michigan Retailers Association and the Michigan Manufacturers Association, among others.
While businesses have traditionally backed GOP candidates, they also contributed to Democrats during the first four months, with some giving more to Democrats than Republicans.
The Michigan Chamber of Commerce, which testified against the repeal legislation, gave $15,300 to GOP lawmakers and $5,500 to Democrats, records show. The Michigan Retailers Association, whose first-quarter donations heavily leaned Republican in recent years, gave Democrats $6,000 while giving Republicans $1,250 this quarter, data shows.
Some were more even-handed: The Michigan Manufacturers Association gave $2,250 to eight Democrats’ campaigns and another $2,250 to seven GOP accounts. The Michigan Farm Bureau gave Democrats $2,500 and Republicans $3,000.
Bowens said businesses are “hedging their bets” with the new majority and will likely continue giving to Democrats for a while, citing financial issues within the Michigan Republican Party and controversies around newly-elected GOP Chair Kristina Karamo.
“Giving doesn’t necessarily correlate with getting what you want done, but being able to give and attend a kind of events that are designed to meet and greet and have conversations opens the door and gives you the opportunity,” he said.
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