Photo credit: Terry Sabo for State Senate Photo credit: Terry Sabo for State Senate

In the Nov. 8 election, this West Michigan town could help decide whether Michigan reclaims its status as a “union state.”

MUSKEGON—It’s Labor Day, a holiday considered to be something of a high holy day in Muskegon. Despite the clouds, residents claim their prime stretches of sidewalk, setting their travel cups of coffee on the curb to unpack folding chairs and blankets. 

At the parade’s starting block, those who are marching congregate and chat, their various union chapter shirts linking them in shared values. Embarking on the route, they wave; a couple of classic cars in their group honk. The parade-goers on the sidewalk, many of whom are also wearing union shirts, clap and wave back.

It’s somewhat of a back-patting exercise, but the straightforward parade only reinforces the strength of unions in this lakeside West Michigan town.

“[Labor Day] is a way for people who have worked hard all their lives to get the day off and enjoy themselves,” said attendee Mel Elijah, a Muskegon resident.

The Muskegon Labor Day parade is a magnet for political candidates, and it’s not hard to see why. Twenty-one percent of the county works in manufacturing—the Muskegon County Manufacturers & Industrial Company Directory is 36 pages long—and today’s workforce is a “legacy” one. During World War II, Muskegon became the first city in the country to be honored with an “M” flag by the War Manpower Association (“M” stands for, you guessed it, manufacturing).

No surprise, then, that locals lining the street seem especially eager to greet their state representative and the chair of the Michigan Labor Legislative Caucus, Terry Sabo, who shakes hands up and down the parade route. Sporting a stars-and-stripes shirt, Sabo’s a familiar sight to the folks here—a Muskegon native who has lived here his whole life, minus his years in the military.

“Before I even got my driver’s license, I was going down the road at the neighbor’s dairy farm, milking cows at three o’clock in the morning before school,” Sabo said. “To me, that was what you had to do.”

He went on to work as a local firefighter, police officer, county roads commissioner, and, eventually, county commissioner. In 2016, he ran for state rep, eking out a narrow primary win and a heartier general election victory. Since then, his constituents have re-elected him two more times.

Marching alongside Sabo are a few dozen supporters who sport his campaign shirt and remind people to vote on November 8. 

Most election years in Muskegon, Sabo’s a slam dunk—but this election cycle isn’t so black and white. This year, Sabo is running for state Senator, where there are fewer seats (each with more geography to cover than the state House) and longer terms. His opponent is Jon Bumstead, a Republican Senator currently serving Michigan’s 34th Senate district. Because of redistricting, Bumstead’s region was splintered; if he wanted to run again, he’d have to choose a side of his existing district. He chose the one encompassing Muskegon, the new 32nd Senate district, and moved here to run. 

Sabo’s counting on that being a factor in the Nov. 8 election. The hometown Democrat and former county commissioner has a long history supporting the people of this area, and has deeply rooted connections with groups that have become more politically charged under other candidates—like police and teachers.

“I’ve been here my entire life,” Sabo said. “I didn’t have to move in order to run for this position.”

A Top Race to Watch

Michigan, like its districts, is changing. The new 32nd Senate district might be one of the state’s most revealing battlegrounds in the political tug-of-war between Republicans and Democrats in Lansing.

That’s due in part to the work of Michigan’s bipartisan redistricting committee, whose efforts to combat gerrymandering—which has favored Republicans in the state for the past several decades—resulted in an unusual scenario for the upcoming election: More incumbents are running against each other in the new districts, but the new districts are drawn more evenly between the parties. This year may be Democrats’ first real shot at taking control of the Legislature since the 1980s. And Muskegon, where the well-liked Sabo is running for a new job against an incumbent outsider, might just be the bellwether for Michigan’s political future. 

For Sabo, a Democratic-controlled government would open the door to popular policies that have been suffocated in Republican-controlled committees. Those include repealing right-to-work laws promoted by Bumstead that have dampened union strength in Michigan.

“That’s probably one thing that is very distinguished between myself and my opponent,” Sabo said. “I very much believe in the labor movement, whereas my opponent does not. He actually has tried to strip away a lot of those benefits.”

Bumstead was part of the group who sponsored and passed the current right-to-work laws in Michigan. Since then, labor participation has sharply declined, and Michigan—once considered the “mecca” of the modern labor movement—has lost its standing in the top 10 union states in the US.

Up against the Republican-controlled Legislature, Sabo hasn’t been able to move any of his labor bills to the floor—including bills to supplement paid sick time and strengthen collective bargaining. With a Democratic Legislature, those bills could make more headway.

But despite working in a Republican-led Legislature for much of his career, Sabo has still been a central figure in Muskegon’s rejuvenation. In recent years, the city’s downtown has seen major investments from private ventures and state grants that Sabo helped secure. Those range from luxury high-rise developments to affordable homes built through American Rescue Plan Act grants

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A mural on the W. Western Avenue side of the Delta by Marriott Hotel in Downtown Muskegon

The Muskegon Spirit

For several years now, local leaders have commissioned artists to paint murals commemorating Muskegon’s workforce along the city’s main streets—hoping to inspire the city’s present with celebrations of the past. In the labor-centric style of Diego Rivera, the murals valorize workers and the fruits of their labor. They’ve come to represent an American spirit that Sabo says conflicts with recent legislative agendas coming out of the GOP that benefit wealthy people at the top. 

“I want to support those types of people—people that want to provide for their families,” Sabo said. “They want to make sure there’s a secure retirement waiting for them at the end, make sure that they have health care.”

It might surprise voters—who are, by now, accustomed to politicians on both sides of the aisle capitalizing on what divides us—to learn that Sabo doesn’t view labor issues as split down partisan lines. Not, at least, on the ground, where policies made in Lansing affect real people’s lives. Whether they’re Democrats, Republicans, Independents, or any political ideology on the spectrum, Sabo said, the people of the region come together over labor.

“Labor has fortified a lot of working families over the decades, making sure they could provide for their families at home, making sure that they could get a good education, all the food on the table, good retirement,” Sabo said. “I think we saw that downtown today, with the parade and all the activities going on in downtown Muskegon. Labor and Muskegon go hand in hand.”

A recent Gallup poll found that public approval of labor unions is at its highest point since 1965, with 71% of Americans saying they value unions. And the Center for American Progress has found that Gen Z—that is, people born between 1997-2012—has the most support for organized labor among all living generations, regardless of race, level of education, or gender identity. Even Republican-identifying Gen Zers support unions at 56.4%—the narrowest partisan gap of any generation.

As if further proof was needed that organized labor’s resurgence will have an impact on Michigan’s upcoming elections, John Gibbs—a MAGA Republican running in the 3rd Congressional district, which includes Muskegon—marched in the Muskegon Labor Day Parade. It caused something of a stir, said Sabo’s press secretary, Jennie Naffie. Usually, only Dems show up.

“It is rare for Muskegon to have Republicans in the parade,” Naffie said. “Probably because in the past few years they have done nothing to support labor—with their right to work laws and banning public teachers from striking, there is no benefit for them to show up.”

Naffie—Sabo’s press secretary—was his high school English teacher. Still, Sabo has a hard time calling her by her first name, even now, decades later. She said while many things about Sabo have changed in adulthood, he’s still the same teen she taught in other ways—respectful, diligent, and ready to take care of whatever needs to get done, like running a note to the office.

At the time, she didn’t know Sabo had any political aspirations to run for office. But that sums up Sabo today still; he isn’t in it for the politics, she says.

In the House, as politics have become increasingly walled off by party, Sabo has been eager to engage with anyone and everyone, from union employees to voters whose houses are draped in Trump flags. There isn’t a door he won’t knock in his home county.

“I believe people for the most part want to do the right things,” he said. “That’s something I grew up on.”