Published January 13, 2015
David Hecker wasn't sure what to expect when he showed up at the Capitol earlier this year for a meeting with Rick Snyder, the new Republican governor he had worked to defeat in the 2010 election.
But what he found surprised him: Snyder in an open-necked shirt, ready to talk in detail about a proposal that Hecker's American Federation of Teachers Michigan group had made about teacher tenure and evaluations.
Hecker said it was clear Snyder had analyzed the lengthy email he'd sent on the subject. An hour later, "We walked out saying, 'Well, you know, we're going to be able to have a dialogue with this administration,'" the union president said.
Hecker and other union leaders aren't necessarily finding the dialogue leads to results they want. Last week, the Legislature passed Snyder's plan to cut state funding for public schools by 2 percent and universities by 15 percent over the AFT's vociferous opposition.
But it does seem to be affecting the larger budget struggle in Michigan, which is unfolding without the massive, nationally televised protests or legislative boycotts that have occurred in other capitals with new Republican leadership and fiscal problems.
For Snyder, a former Gateway computer executive who began his business career as an accountant, a preference for long, technical discussions, meetings with the other side and moving deliberately has given a different face to the Republican juggernaut created by last fall's midterm election.
"This is not Wisconsin," Snyder told hundreds of Michigan Building and Construction Trades Council union members, referring to the furious confrontations earlier this year over Republican Gov. Scott Walker's conservative proposals for state budget cuts.
Since winning election last November, Snyder has met with leaders from more than 15 unions, including the Michigan Education Association, United Auto Workers, the Carpenters' union and the Michigan AFL-CIO, according to Snyder communications director Geralyn Lasher. There have been many other meetings with his staff. The talk is low-key even if the actions aren't.
With a state unemployment rate over 10 percent and inflation-adjusted general fund revenues at 1960s levels, Snyder has pushed to sharply cut Michigan's government costs and overhaul the tax structure to attract business to the state. He has had the advantage of a GOP-controlled Senate and House and public alarm about the battered economy.
But his proposals have come as a jolt to a state with a strong labor tradition. Snyder pushed the Legislature to give special "financial managers" new powers to cancel union contracts and cut costs in financially troubled cities and school districts. No other Republican governor has attempted such a tactic.
He's also asked state workers for $145 million in concessions and cut hundreds of millions of dollars in spending on public schools, universities and local governments. Those actions will lead to layoffs, pay cuts and health insurance premium increases by local authorities. Detroit Mayor Dave Bing, for instance, has demanded the city's 48 unions agree to a 20 percent reduction in health care costs.
In an overture to business, Snyder on Wednesday signed a sweeping tax proposal that ultimately will cut business taxes by $1.7 billion.
The measures rival what Walker and new Republican Gov. John Kasich of Ohio have attempted in their states with more rhetorical flourish and forceful methods. Those governors have run into legislative obstacles — and in Walker's case, a lawsuit and recall efforts. An attempt to recall Snyder is under way but considered unlikely to get on the November ballot since more than 800,000 signatures must be collected.
Michigan union leaders and Democrats stress they understand what Snyder is doing.
He's "using the national playbook," said Senate Democratic Leader Gretchen Whitmer. "Walker rams through the front door and Governor Snyder's sneaking in the back door when you're talking about collective bargaining and really disadvantaging working people in our state."
Hundreds of Ford Motor Co. workers booed Snyder's appearance at a Detroit-area assembly plant in March. At a Capitol rally that drew close to 5,000 last month, Herb Sanders of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Workers declared that Snyder's vision "is not the kind of Michigan we want to live in."
The situation is not explosive, though, in part because Snyder has given ground sometimes and kept talking with the opposition. In Wisconsin, Walker has had no direct communication with union officials. When Michigan's revenue projections came in higher than expected this month, Snyder agreed to put more than $300 million back into public schools, lessening the cuts. The final deal was worked out in a series of meetings at the Capitol two weeks ago, with Snyder periodically calling up spreadsheets on his iPad to crunch numbers.
He also agreed earlier to exempt older retirees from paying income tax on the pensions that hundreds of thousands of union workers hold.
The governor shows no sign of changing direction. In the coming months, he says he's determined to toughen tenure standards for teachers, a conservative priority that threatens education unions, and restrict state-subsidized job training to fields that need workers, a sensitive issue for labor.
A self-described "nerd," he insists people are getting used to his approach. At a recent ceremony unveiling the official portrait of his predecessor, Jennifer Granholm, he joked that in the one-block walk from his office to the Capitol, "I actually made the trip without seeing a sign."