States now controlled by Dems forge ahead on many fronts
In Michigan, a state with a new Democratic trifecta, legislators are moving ahead on workers' rights. The new Michigan House Speaker, Joe Tate, says repeal of Right to Work for Less is his party's top priority.

BOSTON—In Massachusetts, teachers unions want to repeal then-Republican Gov. Calvin Coolidge’s 104-year-old law banning public worker strikes. Coolidge rode that law to the vice presidency in 1920 and the White House a century ago when Warren Harding died.

In Michigan, the new Democratic legislative majority put repealing two Republican right to work laws atop their agenda.

In Maryland, freshman Democratic Gov. Wes Moore and progressive state legislators want to tax the rich and split the funds between more money for the schools and ending child poverty in one of the nation’s richest states.

And in Minnesota, workers and lawmakers are trying to figure out how to spend a $17.6  billion state surplus, permanently outlaw right to work laws, strengthen the state’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration, and enhance the right to collective bargaining.

Welcome to the possibilities of “trifectas” in the “four M” states which in the 2022 election switched to total control by pro-worker forces. The partisan and philosophical changeover has unions and their allies joyfully contemplating the possibilities.

Trifectas, where one party controls both houses of the legislature and the governor’s mansion, are especially important to workers now. Due to continuing congressional gridlock, states again have roles as “the laboratories of democracy,” to quote famed progressive Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis.

Lawmakers and unionists in the new trifectas in Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, and Minnesota aren’t flying blind. They have preceding combos to emulate, in Illinois, California, and New York.

Led the way

The Golden State, the nation’s most populous, has led the way in raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour and has approved a raft of other pro-worker laws, including one extending worker rights to gig workers and another regulating the exploitative fast food industry.

The Illinois legislature passed, Democratic Gov. J.B. Pritzker signed, and voters enshrined the right to collective bargaining in the state constitution while outlawing so-called  right to work laws, too.

And New York Democratic Gov. Kathy Hochul threatened to immediately enforce the Democratic state legislature’s new hospital “safe staffing law”—a key cause of National Nurses United—on a big hospital and a three-hospital chain in New York City. The threat helped push bosses to settle a strike they forced on the New York State Nurses Association over the issue.

That’s not to say trifectas always aid workers. In a major miscalculation in 2010, labor concentrated on holding onto Congress, downplaying state races. That, combined with the corporate-backed/manufactured Tea Party movement, produced an electoral disaster whose impact is still felt, via gerrymandering, in Congress, state capitals, and city halls.

That 2010 Republican sweep produced notorious reactionary trifectas in Wisconsin, Michigan, Texas, and Florida, among others.

In Wisconsin, the American Legislative Exchange Council, a secretive corporate cabal, collaborated with the heavily Republican-gerrymandered legislature and right-wing GOP Gov. Scott Walker to impose vindictive Act 10, imposing right to work and emasculating public unions in the birthplace of AFSCME. Michigan cut jobless benefits and followed suit on RTW in the Auto Workers’ home state.

Florida’s rightist Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis and the legislature are micromanaging schools, virtually dictating to teachers—mostly unionized—a whitewash, literally, of U.S. history. Texas GOP Gov. Greg Abbott and the again-gerrymandered state legislature made a bad voter restriction law worse, especially seeking to ban voting by Black and brown people in Harris County (Houston).

Those examples, for well or ill, show the possibilities when workers or bosses have total control of the levers of power. There are pro-worker plans in all four new trifectas:

Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer of Michigan had such long coattails in her 2022 re-election win, soundly defeating a Trumpite, that she swept pro-worker Democratic majorities into both houses of the legislature for the first time in decades.

House Speaker Joe Tate, D-Detroit, and Senate Majority Leader Vinnie Brinks, D-Grand Rapids, made repeal of the two Republican-engineered RTW laws—one covering the private sector and the other covering public workers—their first bills in the legislative hopper.

Tate said they also plan to reinstate the Republican-repealed prevailing wage law and repeal an “unfair, unpopular ‘retirement tax” the GOP enacted. Sponsoring State Rep. Karen Whitsitt, D-Detroit, said right to work repeal “will help bring racial and economic justice” to Michigan workers.

In last year’s Republican-run legislative session, the then-minority state House Democrats introduced 34 pro-worker bills—and went 0 for 34.

This time the Democrats also plan to expand the state Earned Income Tax Credit and repeal the 1931 law that criminalizes women who get abortions and doctors who provide them.

Unified control in St. Paul

This year, for the first time in a decade, the Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party has unified control in St. Paul, under the leadership of Gov. Tim Walz, a member of Education Minnesota, the state’s joint Teachers (AFT)-National Education Association affiliate.

It also has a $17.6 billion surplus, double last year’s figure. Then, with split control, Walz did not seek $1 billion to help settle a forced Minneapolis teachers’ strike, irking unionists.

“It’s time to dream of what’s possible!” exulted Minneapolis Regional Labor Federation President Chelsie Glaubitz Gabiou in her Minneapolis Labor Review column early this year.

“As the pandemic has shown, employers are ill-prepared to support and protect their very own employees. Not only did they provide sub-par personal protective equipment at the onset of the pandemic, but they also pushed workers in some industries to a breakneck speed to keep product moving.

“We will be seeking policies to strengthen OSHA and to raise minimum labor standards across specific industries, particularly in areas like health care, warehousing, meatpacking, rail transportation, and refinery work—just to name a few,” Glaubitz Gabiou elaborated.

“We can lift bans on collective bargaining in specific industries, expand prevailing wage investments, tackle outsourcing of public sector jobs, and pro-actively ban right to work. We also can put new labor standards in place in growing industries like clean energy to encourage family-supporting wages and jobs.”

Service Employees state President Jamie Gulley told the paper she wants Minnesota’s trifecta to earmark part of the $17.6 billion surplus to invest in, and raise the wages of, home health care workers. They “deserve respect and a raise,” Gulley said. Education Minnesota President Denise Specht said it’s time for Walz and lawmakers to invest more in all Minnesota schools, not just those in favored demographic areas or educational disciplines.

“We must fix our aging infrastructure as it is an increasing threat to the health and safety of our people and the prosperity of our state,” added Laborers Minnesota-North Dakota President Joel Smith. Doing so “would also provide jobs for the next generation of Laborers.”

Unionists have already started lobbying lawmakers for pet priorities. The Minnesota Nurses Association did so on Feb. 15 and the regional Carpenters Council follows on Feb. 23.

Calvin Coolidge overturned!

Repealing Calvin Coolidge’s strike ban, which he used to break a 1919 Boston police stoppage and walkout, may be a top teachers’ unions’ priority, but it isn’t for new Democratic Gov. Maura Healey. She’s campaigning for a $987 million “immediate needs” infrastructure bond issue.

With her state Labor Commissioner in tow, Healey, who succeeded retiring two-term Republican Charlie Baker, told a state business group the bond issue would “carve out matching state funds, as the administration works with cities and towns to compete for federal funding tied to climate change, advanced manufacturing, broadband access, water and sewer infrastructure and technology.” The infrastructure, climate change, and manufacturing money could help fund thousands of construction jobs.

Meanwhile, the Massachusetts AFL-CIO’s top priority is legislation to crack down on wage theft, according to its Twitter feed.

“Wage theft is widespread in some industries,” the fed said, following a CBS News program on the issue. “Union officials call wage theft an epidemic” and “unscrupulous employers STEAL $1 BILLION a year (their emphasis). This is why we have to pass HD2895/SD1087: An act to prevent wage theft, promote employer accountability, and enhance public enforcement.”

The federation adds Healey’s successor as Attorney General, Andrea Campbell, “is prioritizing this issue, but her office needs this legislation to pass so she has the proper tools for enforcement to make sure employees are paid the money they earned.” The fed is running a campaign on the issue: #StopWageTheftMA.

There’s some new business for new Gov. Wes Moore (D) and the heavily Democratic legislature.

High among AFSCME’s priorities: Merging the state’s three labor relations boards into one and giving the resulting combined board more clout. The union also seeks binding arbitration when the two sides—government agencies and their workers’ unions–can’t agree on a contract. And it wants the state to fix a very wide but simple problem many of its own workers literally breathe: Unhealthy indoor air.

Tax cuts for the poor and middle class and a tax hike on the rich in one of the two wealthiest states in the union, by per capita income, lead Moore’s agenda for workers and families. Much of the added money would go to his top goal of eliminating child poverty.

More specifically, Moore wants to move the state’s minimum wage up to $15 an hour by the end of this year, not in 2025, and index it to inflation after Jan. 1. He also wants to fill vacant teaching slots at struggling schools and fill 6,100 vacant state jobs, a prospect that elates AFSCME. Many of those would be corrections and parole officers.

Workers and their allies have an added advantage in Maryland and Massachusetts which they lack in Michigan and Minnesota. Democratic majorities were so large, lawmakers could and did override vetoes by Maryland’s then-GOP Gov. Larry Hogan and Massachusetts’s Baker—and majorities grew in 2022.

The margins are now 124-35 in the Massachusetts House and 37-3 in the Senate. The Maryland Senate is 34-13 Democratic. The 102-39 Democratic House includes former Newspaper Guild President Linda Foley, who now represents western Montgomery County, a wealthy section of the D.C. metro area.

Prior pro-worker trifecta states aren’t sitting still either, according to the Washington Post. State lawmakers in California, Maryland—the new trifecta—Illinois, and New York are pushing wealth taxes, modeled on federal legislation by Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass. Those in the pre-existing trifectas of Connecticut, Hawaii, and New York, plus progressive Maryland lawmakers also seek to raise state capital gains tax rates to the level of personal income tax rates.

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Mark Gruenberg
Mark Gruenberg

Award-winning journalist Mark Gruenberg is head of the Washington, D.C., bureau of People's World. He is also the editor of the union news service Press Associates Inc. (PAI). Known for his reporting skills, sharp wit, and voluminous knowledge of history, Mark is a compassionate interviewer but tough when going after big corporations and their billionaire owners.