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Union leaders hope to build consensus on a candidate

By Rick Pluta, Michigan Public Radio Network


Lansing, MI – Many of Michigan's union leaders are meeting Friday to try and unite the divided labor coalition behind a single candidate for governor. It will be a tough job.


Lansing Mayor Virg Bernero won the hearts of many auto workers last year with his spirited defense of their industry and compensation on national TV...including this appearance on Fox News.

"What are we going to produce in this country if we allow the auto industry to go by the wayside like every other industry that we've shipped overseas!" (Host) If I could just get a question I here ."

It's widely believed Bernero has locked up the endorsement of the United Auto Workers union and that was enough to scare off at least one prospective rival for the Democratic nomination for governor.

But there are other unions.

Bernero has problems with construction workers because he opposed paying the prevailing union wage on some building projects in Lansing. Many government employees planted "Anyone But Virg" signs in their yards during the last mayoral election because of his fights with city unions.

Bernero says that just goes with the job.

"I'm not saying it's all been peaches and cream," Bernero says. "Any mayor of any city, you're not going to agree 100 percent the union or with any of your employees. So there have been disagreements. I consider those to be family fights that we've had."

State House Speaker Andy Dillon just spoke to a meeting of key Teamsters who will help choose the union's preferred candidate. Dillon hopes he's on a roll. He just won the backing of the Michigan Building and Construction Trades Council. The union likes Dillon desire to build new coal plants, which means construction jobs.

But Dillon has some problems with teachers and other public employees. They believe his plan to pool public employees under one statewide health benefits plan will cost them more money, or reduce their coverage.

But Dillon has a record of voting with labor 90 percent of the time, and says those fears are misplaced.

"The main reason I came to Lansing was because I was concerned about the erosion of the middle class and the loss of manufacturing jobs and it's my Number One priority," Dillon says. "All these people want is to go back to work and I bring a mixture of private sector plus five years of experience in Lansing and I think I've got the combination of ingredients we need to reverse the state's economy."

But many union members aren't convinced. There are also other elements of the traditional Democratic alliance that don't like Dillon because of his record on the environment and his opposition to abortion. Some union leaders say they don't want a splintered labor coalition to result in a Dillon primary victory in August.

And state Representative Alma Wheeler Smith says that should make her labor's top choice. Smith also visited with the Teamsters and called attention to her 100 percent record of voting with labor. Smith says of all the Democrats running, she would be the unions' most reliable ally.

"I know their issues and I know how to make the public sector in Michigan to function to get jobs in the state of Michigan and to make sure those jobs are prevailing wage jobs," says Smith. "I'm not seeing Michigan enter a race to the bottom in terms of the salaries we earn."

The Michigan AFL-CIO, which did not return phone calls for this story, is trying to get all the unions on the same side. But Bill Black of the Teamsters say it's more important for labor to unite behind a candidate after the August primaries.

"I think as long as they come together in the general election, I think that's key," says Black.

But the Teamsters are noted for sometimes breaking away from the Democratic coalition. And that is a possibility this year. At least two Republicans, businessman Rick Snyder and Congressman Pete Hoekstra are angling for the Teamsters endorsement.

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