Preempting Local Democracy

By Joel Campbell

Former Governor Rick Snyder is remembered for many reprehensible things, from poisoning Flint to signing Right to Work legislation. Perhaps his most enduring legacy, one that both of these are a part of, is his attempt to thwart any local resistance to capitalism. Flint was poisoned, after all, because of Emergency Financial Manager Ed Kurtz. EFMs, a hallmark of the Snyder administration, supplanted elected officials throughout the state. For Snyder, any attempt at even representative politics would not be tolerated. Direct democracy on a municipal level was an even bigger threat and one his administration worked overtime to head off at the pass. 

Between 2012 and 2016, Snyder signed preemption laws in six critical areas: minimum wage, paid leave, fair work scheduling, regulation and taxation on gig companies, and prevailing wage. There was even a law signed preventing municipalities from banning plastic grocery bags. Even now, Representative Michele Hoitenga (R – 102) has introduced HB 4575, a bill that will prohibit local municipalities from banning natural gas appliances in new and existing residential buildings. This legacy lingers over local organizers to this day as many try to figure out how to make Michigan a better place to live.

Much like the Emergency Financial Management laws, preemption laws stifle the prospect for municipalities to engage in democratic policy-making and solutions. A preemption law, in short, bars municipalities from passing certain pieces of legislation. For example, municipalities are prevented from raising the minimum wage; it must be raised on a state level. City employees’ wages can typically be increased, but any non-city employee has to wait for either a ballot measure to come along or hope that the Republican-dominated Michigan legislature will do the right thing.

In 2018, the Michigan chapter of One Fair Wage set out to do just that. With enough signatures collected, One Fair Wage’s ballot initiative was bound for the 2018 November ballot until, in September, the Michigan legislature approved both the minimum wage increase and another ballot initiative about paid sick leave. Paid sick leave, like the minimum wage, faces this preemption challenge. By adopting these initiatives, the Michigan legislature was able to amend them with simple majority votes. The Republicans had supermajorities in both houses at the time and essentially destroyed the ballot measures. The last hope was the Michigan Supreme Court, and, perhaps unsurprisingly, the court ruled that this debacle was a non-issue.

Preemption laws, Right to Work, and the byzantine legal system give organizers a unique set of challenges. All the work for a statewide ballot measure fell flat on its face. Perhaps a post-mortem is necessary to understand what to avoid. When people say that the power belongs to them, it is true; the workers make the world turn. This power, however, can be stripped away and smashed if the working class is not clear-eyed in its strategy and diverse in its tactics.

When looking at what can be done, it is important to consider what dynamics are in motion.  The Left must understand what tools are actually at their disposal and how to utilize them. Ballot measures, whether on a municipal or state level, are subject to the whims of the ruling political class. However, if ballot measures primarily serve as a way to create connections with people in our communities then their efficacy can be validated. Winning a ballot measure is a great secondary goal, but first and foremost the Left should utilize them to draw out sympathetic community members and organize them. 

On the opposing side, the Michigan Republicans have a full spectrum understanding of their tools. One of the last things that floated by Snyder on his way out the door was using the Michigan National Guard to finish road construction that had been halted due to a strike. From crushing strikes to being scabs, the Michigan National Guard stands at the beck and call of the capitalist class, regardless of legality. Power is simply codified in law, it does not originate in it. 

The eternal question, “What is to be done?” echoes here. The need for strategy, base building, and diversity of tactics are crucial. While organizations like the DSA cannot be at the forefront of the labor movement, they can help lay the foundation. Building solidarity through mutual aid, tenant organizing, and strike funds are ways in which DSA can serve as an auxiliary to the burgeoning labor movement. As long as they can be connected through a cohesive strategy, there is a way in which the tide can be turned, and a better tomorrow won.

This requires, in part, a deep observance of the difference between organizing, advocacy, and mobilizing. The chart below is from Jane McAlevey’s seminal work, No Shortcuts, and it helps articulate the difference between the three main types of political work. When considering how to move forward, organizing will be the critical difference rather than the advocacy and mobilizing of most organizations. Long-term, sustained, and personal organizing is required for the Left to win.

The Snyder administration destroyed local democracy if we believe democracy is bound to the pages of law books. Democracy, fundamentally, is a process by which we engage with one another to create a better world. If we choose to let things like preemption laws or Right to Work legislation chill us, then we have indeed lost. If however, we understand that our power is found in building solidarity with our community and that the law is merely something written by the ruling class, we can begin to see a path forward. Unions, strikes, and dignity for the working class have been illegal before, but the union rolled on.

Theory of PowerElite. Seek narrow policy changes, often through courts or back-room negotiations that do not alter the relations of power.Primarily elite. Staff or activists set goals with low to medium concession costs, or, more typically, set an ambitious goal and declare a win, even when the “win” has no, or only weak, enforcement provisions. Back-room, secret deal making by paid professionals is common.Mass, inclusive & collective. Seeks to transform the power structure to favor base and diminish the power of their opposition. Campaigns fit into a larger power- building strategy. They prioritize involving ordinary people in it, & decipher the relationship between economic, social, and political power. Settlement typically comes from mass negotiations with large numbers.
StrategyLitigation: heavy spending on polling, advertising, and other paid media.Campaigns run by staff, or activists, no base of measurable supporters, prioritize frames & messaging over base power. “Authentic messengers” represent the constituency to the media and policy makers, w/no real say in strategy.Recruitment and involvement of specific, large numbers of people whose power comes from their ability to withdraw labor or other cooperation from those who rely on them. Majority strikes, sustained & strategic nonviolent direct action, electoral majorities. Mobilizing is seen as a tactic, not a strategy.
People FocusNone.Grassroots activists. People already committed to the cause, who show up over & over. When they burn out, new, also previously committed activists are recruited. And so on. Social media are over relied on.Organic leaders. The base is expanded through developing the skills of organic leaders who are key influencers of the constituency, and who can then, independent of staff, recruit new people  never before involved. Individual, face-to-face interactions are key.