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Many experts thought the Midwest states would never see Right to Work laws. After all, the modern union movement has deep roots here, and unions remain in force even as membership has dropped elsewhere.

Right to Work States/Source:

But Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels is pushing hard for a Right to Work law, which would eliminate the requirement that people pay dues if a union is formed where they work. And, some lawmakers in Michigan want to push for it there, even though Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder says it is not a priority.

Jack Lessenberry, the political commentator for our partner station Michigan Radio, tackled the subject today. You can hear his commentary on their Web site, and read it here.

Jack writes,

Governor Rick Snyder has no interest in attempting to make Michigan a “right-to-work” state, which means one where it is illegal for employers to sign labor contracts requiring their workers to pay union dues. But some Republicans in the legislature disagree, and may try to get a right-to-work bill passed this year.

There’s also the possibility of trying to put something on the November ballot, a constitutional amendment, perhaps, that would outlaw the union shop in this state. It’s unclear whether there is really going to be any serious effort to make that happen.

But if there is, I can tell you this.  Attempting to make Michigan a right-to-work state might be the biggest present anyone could give the Democrats in this election year.

That would anger unions and get them to pour money into campaigns like never before. And it would make a lot of workers very anxious, especially after the unions launched a campaign to tell them how their paychecks would shrink if this were to ever become a right-to-work state.

That could well mean an electoral disaster for the Republicans in November. Now, if they go ahead and do this anyway, the legislative Republicans will have proven one thing:

Elephants don’t have long memories after all. They should be thinking back to what happened only a dozen years ago. Betsy DeVos, then the state Republican chair, and her husband Dick were strong backers of a ballot initiative that would have made school vouchers widely available in troubled districts statewide.

Governor John Engler, who was also a Republican, thought this was a horrible idea. He knew it would infuriate the teachers unions, who would spend heavily to defeat it. Worse, it would cause a larger-than-expected flood of mostly Democratic voters to the polls.

But the DeVoses and their allies wouldn’t listen. They got a voucher amendment on the ballot that November.  The result was a disaster for the Republicans. The voucher amendment lost by a landslide, which pretty much ended Betsy DeVos’s political career. But that wasn’t the only effect. Michigan had been rated a toss-up between Al Gore and George W. Bush in that famous election. But thanks to the huge turnout of Democrats, Gore won the state fairly easily, by nearly a quarter-million votes.

What was even worse was that the flood of anti-voucher voters allowed Debbie Stabenow to win a come-from-behind upset victory over Republican U.S. Senator Spencer Abraham. The anti-voucher sentiment was so strong it prevented the legislature from doing what Engler was really interested in; allowing more charter schools.

Governor Snyder knows all this. He also doesn’t think right-to-work is necessary for Michigan’s economic recovery. Only a small minority of private sector workers are unionized today. In today’s auto industry, new UAW members make barely half as much as before.

Yet there are some in the legislature who just want to sock it to the unions — and who know that if the union shop were destroyed, unions would lose vast sums in dues that they now sometimes spend trying to defeat candidates they don’t like. Earlier this week, the Jackson Citizen-Patriot, a newspaper that traditionally has favored right-to-work, ran an editorial saying this was not the time.

Republicans who are interested in winning in November might be well advised to listen.

Kraft Foods, based outside Chicago, is one of those companies where a lot of Midwestern college grads got their first jobs. It has famous brands like Maxwell House, Cadbury, and of course, Kraft itself. But it’s on the verge of reorganizing.

Last August, Kraft Foods said it was splitting itself into two companies — one focusing on snacks, the other on grocery items. Now, Kraft, which generates almost $50 billion in annual revenue, says it is cutting 1,600 jobs, mostly in sales, as a result. It is reducing its management centers from four to two. About 20 percent of those jobs are open position that won’t be filled.

The Chicago area will benefit, in a fashion. Kraft’s grocery business will be headquartered in the area, and the beverages business unit in Tarrytown, N.Y., and the Planters brand in East Hanover, N.J., will relocate to there by December.

The global snacks business also will be headquartered in the Chicago area, although Kraft hasn’t decided on a location. But, Kraft said it will close a management center in Glenview, Ill.

“Making these tough choices is never easy, and we recognize the impact these changes will have on many of our people and their families,” said Tony Vernon, president of Kraft Foods North America, who will run the grocery company.

“But our plan for a more nimble company, combined with the current economic and competitive pressures, led us to this point. Taking the necessary steps now will enable us to continue investing in our beloved brands to drive growth.”

Do you work for Kraft, or buy Kraft products? What’s your view of its consolidation?

Mixed bag of jobs news: In Toledo, a company that makes solar panels is laying off 40 workers. The Chicago Tribune is starting a round of newsroom buyouts. But, in Canton, Mich., a TV manufacturer plans to hire 100 workers. The Detroit Free Press says it will be the first time a company has built TVs in the U.S. since Sony closed its last plant here in 2010.

More tourism, fewer movies: The mixed news theme continues in Michigan with a pair of stories about the state’s effort to lure out-of state business. First, the Detroit Free Press reports that interest in the Michigan’s film tax incentives dropped after the state revamped the program last year. But, partner station Michigan Radio reports the state’s tourism ad campaign seems to be paying off. In 2010, out-of-state visitors spent more tourism dollars in Michigan than in-state residents. It was the first time that’s ever been recorded.

Fracking fallout: Officials in Mansfield, Ohio are threatening to block construction of two new waste wells in their city. The wells would store waste products from “fracking,” a controversial method of drilling for natural gas. The concern is these waste wells may have contributed to a series of small earthquakes near Youngstown, Ohio. Meanwhile, TV station WKBN reports a hearing on those earthquakes will be held today at Youngstown State University. WKBN will stream the hearing live on its website starting at 10 a.m. ET.

A truckload of signatures: Later today, a truck is expected to make a delivery to the Wisconsin Government Accountability Board. Democrats are loading the truck with 3,000 lbs. worth of documents, containing up to one million signatures to recall Gov. Scott Walker and other Republicans. Walker’s office says the effort will cost taxpayers $9 million. Needless to say, this probably won’t be the last you hear of it.

The CEO of one of Decatur, Illinois’ largest private employers, Archer Daniels Midland, said Wednesday the agribusiness giant would be cutting 1,000 jobs, about three percent of its overall workforce.

The company employs about 4,500 people in Decatur. The job cuts mean that about 15 percent of the company’s global corporate staff will be laid off, the AP reported.

Many of the job cuts will come from salaried, rather than hourly workers, ADM said in a statement, adding it plans to offer voluntary early retirement incentives to help achieve the cuts.

“To ensure that we can continue to compete effectively in our global markets, we are taking actions to streamline our organization and achieve significant, sustained cost reductions,” ADM”s Chairman and CEO, Patricia Woertz, said in the statement. “These actions will help us enhance our productivity and earnings power.”

Bloomberg reports ADM’s cuts come on the heels of Cargill announcing an 88 percent drop in profit for its fiscal second quarter.

When I was last in Decatur this summer, I reported on ADM’s optimism about the agribusiness and how much it means to Decatur, including plans to take over some downtown office development. I’ve reached out to both ADM and some Decatur officials for some more information – will update if I hear back.

UPDATE: ADM’s David Weintraub tells me that the company doesn’t yet have specific numbers for how many layoffs will occur in Decatur. Employees have until Jan. 31 to submit voluntary retirement packages, and that will then determine how many Decatur employees will be let go.

He also says ADM will decide at that point whether to go ahead with the move into the Reynolds building downtown.

“Right now, our plans haven’t changed,” he said. Once we’re done with this and we see what the organization looks like we’ll determine how best we can use our facilities in Decatur.”

Weintraub added the cuts come in an “increasingly competitive global environment”, adding: “This is about improving our long-term productivity. It’s a tough but necessary decision we have to make.”

Decatur City Manager Ryan McGrady said while the city is obviously not happy to hear any news about jobs cuts, they still feel that ADM remains “committed” to Decatur.

“We’re going to do whatever we can to help them,” he said, adding that the company’s production side – ADM has one of its largest processing facilities in Decatur – isn’t been affected.

McGrady added that other large employers in Decatur – especially Caterpillar – are up above pre-recession employment levels. Caterpillar, in particular, he noted, has committed to a $500 million investment in its Decatur operations.

And one of Decatur’s oldest agribusinesses – the former Staley Company, now Tate & Lyle, had planned to move some of its operations north of Chicago to Hoffman Estates. That number is now only about 80 jobs, McGrady said.

“Economic development is a game of wins and losses,” McGrady said.

The Right to Work law debate is in the national news — Republican presidential frontrunner Mitt Romney insists it would be good for the country — and it’s a big topic right here in the Great Lakes, too.

Right to Work laws mean employees can’t be required to pay union dues, even if a union is formed in their workplace. There are 22 states around the country with Right to Work laws, many in the South, but there are none in the Great Lakes states, which have long been union strong holds.

On Tuesday, the governors in Michigan and Indiana, who’ve faced off in the past, weighed in on the subject with sharply differing views. Michigan’s Republican governor, Rick Snyder, said passing a Right to Work law is not a priority for him this year, even though some lawmakers say they plan to push for it.

Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder

Rick Pluta, at our partner station Michigan Radio, reports Snyder says a Right to Work debate would distract the state from the repair work it needs to do on the economy.

“…to get into a very divisive debate like that, you create an environment where not much gets done and I would point to Wisconsin, I’d point to Ohio. If you look at Indiana, that’s kind of consuming all the dialogue in that state,” Snyder said at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit.

In Indiana, Democratic lawmakers have refused to let the legislature consider the Right to Work law that Republican Gov. Mitch Daniels proposed last month.

Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels

Daniels previously had resisted the same efforts Snyder faces. But in his state of the state address, Daniels said,

“Everyone knows that, among the minority favoring the status quo, passion on this issue is strong, and I respect that. I did not come lightly, or quickly, to the stance I take now. If this proposal limited in any way the right to organize, I would not support it. But we just cannot go on missing out on the middle class jobs our state needs, just because of this one issue.”

Daniels faced protestors during his speech, who shouted, “kill the bill” and marched outside the state capitol rotunda.

Where do you stand on Right to Work? Do our Great Lakes states need it to be competitive?

The numbers from manufacturing are looking good, I reported last week. Bill Strauss from the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago told me that of the 2.3 million manufacturing jobs lost in the recession, at least 300,000 of those jobs have come back. That’s about 13 percent – and where we left off last week. Today, we look at why employers say it’s hard to find those skilled workers. I started in Greenville, Michigan.

Dan Spohn found a new job within two weeks of being laid off last November. (Sarah Alvarez)

In 2008, Dan Spohn was laid off from his West Michigan manufacturing job. It took him six months of effort: going online every day, knocking on doors, passing out resumes, before he found new work. He said at that point, trying to even land an interview was “almost non existent”.

“I think people were in a mode of wait and see,” said Spohn, who has had 22 years of experience, including management, in the quality control side of manufacturing. Spohn ended up leaving the automotive sector where he had worked and moved into medical parts manufacturing. He figured that was a safer bet. But in November, that company downsized, and he was out of work again. But this time, it was a lot easier – within a week of being laid off, he’s had two interviews and two offers.

“Within two weeks of that, I was starting a new job,” said Spohn.

From Spohn’s perspective, the labor market has really loosened up. He’s not alone.

“It seems like everybody we talk to, they are starving for skilled workers, they need people with good skills,” said Tom Crampton, an executive dean at Mott Community College in Flint, Michigan. Crampton focuses on manufacturing training – and he said expectations for today’s manufacturing worker are higher than they used to be.

Community colleges says welding is one of the in-demand manufacturing jobs right now (Niala Boodhoo)

“They want them to be good communicators, good problem solvers as well as having high end technical skills,” he said, especially in machining, welding, design and what he called “mechatronics” – people who can work with both mechanical and electrical components.

State and federal governments devote millions of dollars to helping unemployed workers get retrained – in Michigan, for example, the overall retraining budget is about $640 million this year.

Some of that goes to paying tuition at local community colleges. Across the Midwest, colleges say they are seeing vocational course fill up as the hiring need deepens.

Inside a welding lab at Richland Community College in Decatur, Illinois, Instructor Leo Suhre is keeping a careful eye on students learning to cut and weld metal.

Richland Community College's Douglas Brauer, l, and Leo Suhre. (Niala Boodhoo)

Last year, the school only had enough shop space for 12 students in each welding class. When those slots were taken, the college began offering an additional section at midnight.

“We ran that first the spring, and it started filling up, we ran it again in the summer – there’s a demand there,” said Douglas Brauer, a vice-president at Richland.

Enrollment for this course has increased 20 percent, and the midnight classes are now a regular fixture. Brauer said they’re especially popular with workers coming off second and third shifts at Caterpillar, one of Decatur’s largest employers. Now, the college is thinking about offering not just welding certification, but degree completion courses at midnight.

It’s also just authorized the building of a new workplace training center that will more allow it to more than double the size of its vocational classes.

Nationally, the jobless rate within manufacturing has dropped from a high of 13 percent in January 2010 to just under 8 percent.

One of the greatest needs is for machinists – specially, computerized numerical control – or CNC – operators.

“CNC machinists are red hot right now,” Daley College’s Ray Prendergast. Daley College has had a 137 percent enrollment increase between the fall of 2010 and 2011. Often, Prendergast said, his students are getting employment offers even before they graduate. At Humboldt College, the placement rate for jobs is 100 percent, he said.

In Skokie, Illinois, Symbol Job Training is a for-profit school that focuses solely on training machinists in CNC machinery, the standard on factory floors these days.

Student John Zawojski is a few months into the program. He had worked in warehousing for years, but got laid off, and hasn’t been able to find the same pay rates he used to get. He’s hoping that a CNC certification will change that.

Zawojski hadn’t heard of machining until the employment office told him it could be a good career – and said it would pay his tuition.

“I had no idea how to do any of this,” he told me as he punched codes into the control pad. “Now, I’m pretty good at it. I can actually make parts.”

Back in Flint, Crampton, from Mott Community College, says the conventional wisdom is that there aren’t any manufacturing jobs. The real problem, according to Crampton, is that there are pipeline issues: not just meeting today’s demand, but tomorrow’s, too.

The concept Acura NS-X/photo by Micki Maynard

Honda made history in 1990 when it introduced the high powered Acura NS-X sports car. But it discontinued it in 2005 to focus on more fuel efficient models.

Now, NS-X is coming back. And instead of Japan, where it built the original car, it will build it in Ohio.

Honda made the announcement this afternoon at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit. It showed a concept version of the NS-X unveiled by its CEO, Takanobu Ito.

The next version of NS-X will be introduced in about three years, said Ito, who was part of its original development team. This version will be available as a hybrid, he said.

Honda will engineer it in Marysville, Ohio, at its sprawling North American technical center. It also plans to build it in central Ohio at a new manufacturing facility for the car, said a Honda spokesman, Ed Miller.

He would not say where the facility would be or how many jobs it would create, but said the car won’t be made on an existing assembly line.

Honda has car plants in Marysville and East Liberty, Ohio, and an engine plant in Anna.

Last month, Indiana’s Republican Gov. Mitch Daniels finally put his weight behind years-long effort to pass a Right to Work law in Indiana. He is making it a priority in the new legislative session in Indianapolis, and is facing immediate opposition from Indiana Democrats.

Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels

Democrats stalled business on Wednesday, the first day of the 2012 session, when they did not report to the House floor, according to the Associated Press. They continued to block action Thursday on a bill that would make Indiana the first state in a decade to enact a Right-to-Work law.

The laws bar private sector unions from automatically collecting dues from employees that do not join organized labor groups. None of the Great Lakes states, long union strongholds, have Right-to-Work laws. Some economic development proponents say Midwestern states need them to compete with the Right-to-Work friendly South.

The Indiana Democrats aren’t getting off easy: last year, Indiana lawmakers enacted a $1,000 a day fine for not showing up. The fines could take effect today.

Meanwhile, protestors are beginning to gather at the state capitol in Indianapolis, much as they did in Wisconsin and Ohio last year when governors sought to strip state employees of collective bargaining rights.

Michael Puente at our partner WBEZ reported this week on what’s at stake in Indiana.

Our mission at Changing Gears is to report the economic transformation of the industrial Midwest, through the stories of people driving and experiencing this change.

Recently, our stations aired an hour-long encore presentation of our favorite series from the fall, as well as other stories from throughout 2011.

Have you ever wondered if small business really plays an important role in job creation? Or why our region seems to focus so much on one magic thing that will save the entire economy? And, have you wondered what will become of all the thousands of the empty houses and factories that litter our region?

Corey Greenwald's machines are shaping intricate designs in metal blocks, largely unattended.

We also went to a few factory floors to see what manufacturing is like these days – including one place where the machines continue to work at night, unattended, long after the human workers punch out.

We hope that these stories – about the Magic Bullets that are supposed to save our economy, innovative ways people are filling Empty Places, and what the modern factory looks like, help fulfill our mission.

Our partners at WBEZ are featuring our special on their site. You can check it out here.

Last month, Changing Gears teamed with authors and CNN anchors Ali Velshi and Christine Romans to collect your questions on the personal finance issues that you’re facing because of the recession.

Today, we’re bringing you the next in our series of Midwest Money answers from Ali and Christine, based on their new book, How To Speak Money: The Language and Knowledge You Need Now. (Each person whose question is used will receive a copy of the book.)

Today’s question comes from Regina Baldwin of Bowling Green, Ohio.

I am returning to school, while continuing to work full-time, to try to expand on my experience and enhance my ability to get a better job with a degree.  I’m concerned that I am on the correct path as I am over 40.  I am keeping my student loan debt at a minimum by attending a community college.  I am worried that I will not get a better paying job by the time I finish.  (If it makes a difference, I am pursing a BS in Business Administration-Computer Information Sciences with a focus on Accounting, and I currently work in healthcare.)

Ali and Christine answer,

If we were writing another book, we’d highlight you as an example of someone with exactly the right attitude and initiative in a new, more difficult jobs market. You are making exactly the right investment in yourself with this education and retraining, and the student debt you are taking on is what we consider “good debt.”

It’s even smarter since you are pursuing your studies at a community college. Bottom line, people are living longer and working longer, so the degree, the education and the work experience together are critical for many years of earnings.

At the same time, we hear you on your concerns that you might not end up with a higher-paying job in the end. Ali thinks your accounting focus is key. Accounting jobs are expected to grow 22% between 2008 and 2018, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. That’s much higher than the average of all professional occupations (17%) and translates to almost 280,000 new jobs.

(Click here for a gallery of the 20 highest paying jobs.)

Christine is enthusiastic about anything STEM (that’s the acronym for Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) and certainly computer fields are in there. In fact, more than half of all job hires forecast in the first months of this year are expected to be in tech. According to the Labor Department, median weekly earnings for computer scientists and systems analysts earn last year was $1,220 a week.

(Note: Changing Gears plans to report on STEM this year.)

It’s very important to be confident in your decision, build self-confidence and be aggressive: maximize your work experience as you pursue your degree. Network, volunteer for positions and new projects, and apply for internships in your new field. That’s tough while working full-time, we know, but short term pain will mean long-term gain.

Click to read Ali and Christine’s previous answers.