Street Talk

Street Talk: Funny things happened at the Forum

Beer cart.

October 3, 2014
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The West Michigan Policy Forum had a major cause for joy when it convened this year: Since the last Forum two years ago, the state government enacted right-to-work legislation in Michigan. Roughly half of the states are right-to-work, mainly excluding the most industrialized states.

One of the major celebrants was Dick DeVos, a key figure at the WMPF since its formation in 2008 and an avowed foe of organized labor.

DeVos, president of Windquest Group investments, said it’s been a little less than two years since right-to-work — or freedom to work, as many proponents call it — became law in Michigan, but “returns are right in line,” he said, reading newspaper headlines about Toyota investing in jobs in Michigan instead of Kentucky.

DeVos said Michigan now is leading the nation in the growth of manufacturing jobs.

Getting right-to-work into law in Michigan was “the most fun” so far in the WMPF’s efforts to influence public policy in Michigan, and it is “popular among voters,” he said, citing a statistic that 82 percent of Americans believe no one should be required to be in a labor union in order to have a job.

DeVos said the unions have political agendas and if Democrat Mark Schauer, “an ally of big labor,” defeats Gov. Rick Snyder this fall, there will be a big push to repeal right-to-work, and there will be repercussions as organized labor continues its “assault on workers’ freedoms.” All should vote for Snyder in November, he said, “to continue freedom to work here in Michigan.”

Some may recall that police and firefighter unions in Michigan are not covered by the right-to-work law, which mainly prevents unions from having members’ dues automatically deducted from their paychecks and prevents the firing of members who do not pay their dues.

In December 2012, Snyder explained on his blog why he was going to sign the right-to-work legislation. He said the legislation “respects and preserves the status afforded to police and firefighters under Public Act 312, which reflects the hazardous nature of their jobs. We must preserve the loyalty and intra-unit solidarity that are crucial elements in the ability of our police and firefighters to perform their dangerous public safety missions.”

Speaking of which

Snyder spoke a little later that morning at the WMPF, noting the Forum’s “work here is important. It is something I listen to.” He said it offers a perspective with “priorities for the future.”

The WMPF was formed to help make Michigan a top-performing state, and Snyder said last week “we’re coming back,” noting the growth in personal income, the recent increase in Michigan home values that lead the nation, and almost 300,000 jobs returned to the state since 2009 when it had the highest unemployment rate in the nation.

Snyder said his top priority is to get Michigan residents connected to a career, and to do that, we need to bring together the education sector and the private sector where the jobs are.

Automotive technicians, truck drivers and tool-and-die workers are “great middle-class jobs,” he said, and “we need to do a better job of connecting people” to them.

Increasing Michigan’s pool of talented workers is the top priority, said Snyder; integrating the education system is No. 2; and bolstering the state’s preschool education programs to make more kids successful in school is his third highest priority.

During the question-and-answer session following his remarks, one person noted there are said to be 80,000 skilled jobs in the state that are unfilled, yet wages for skilled workers have not increased, which would seem to contradict a basic law of economics. “So how do we know we have a shortage” of skilled workers? the man asked Snyder.

Snyder said because the tool-and-die people told him so, adding those jobs are “good, well-paying jobs.”

Snyder called “hogwash” the anti-Snyder campaign advertising on television that claims he cut money from K-12 education.

“That’s a flat-out lie,” he said emphatically.

The good old days

With all the talk about labor and talent, restaurateur Tommy Brann decided to add his two cents.

And, as usual, it was a bit off the cuff from the colorful — and successful — eatery icon who worked his way up from the bottom of the family business.

Brann said he actually would like to see scaled-back child labor laws so he can hire 11- and 12-year-olds for $4 an hour (presumably to wash dishes, like he did growing up).

Surprisingly, many people didn’t seem to think this was a bad idea.

Life lessons

Brian Walker, president of Herman Miller, joined Haworth President Franco Bianchi for a frank discussion about West Michigan’s need to grow its own talent to fill the jobs that are becoming available.

Walker told an interesting story of a young lady who wanted to become an artist but was planning to drop out of school because there were no jobs. She had never heard of graphic design. He said she eventually went into that field, with help from Herman Miller, and proved to be successful.

It’s all about perspective, Walker said.

“I remember my first job interview in Grand Rapids and going to Churchill’s (restaurant) across the street,” he said, and then “opening up the menu and realizing there was nothing that I’d ever ordered in my entire life, coming from my background. I always tell my son it’s going to be a lot easier for you because you’ve been to a lot of places. I think for a lot of kids, we realized they’ve not even been in a restaurant often. So the ability to expose them to things is key.”

Point man

Poor Scott Miller, manager of circulation and marketing for Gemini Publications. Miller was camped out front and center at WMPF touting Gemini’s publications, including the Business Journal.

Unfortunately, this put him in the line of fire when people wanted to speak to Journal reporters. After fielding several inquiries and politely guiding people in the right direction, he was brought up short when Canadian Consul General Doug George stopped by looking for a writer.

When informed that all editorial types were inside the conference, George responded: “That’s OK. I’m just here to give away a bridge.”

Gotta love that north-of-the-border humor!

End game

The end of the WMPF resembled a golf outing, featuring carts laden with local craft beers making the rounds at the event’s conclusion.

It was a nice boost for the local industry and a good reminder that craft beer is making its presence felt in West Michigan.

Doug DeVos, president of Amway Corp., reached for a beer and offered a smile, commenting that this was the first time he’d done something like this with his peers at a public event.

To which Business Journal Editor Carole Valade responded: “See, it’s not just for the garage on Sundays anymore.”

Yeah, like that ever happened!

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