Michigan, the birthplace of the union movement, has done the unthinkable. Last night, both houses of the legislature passed legislation that will make Michigan the 24th state with a right-to-work law. That means both public- and private-sector employees would no longer have to pay mandatory dues in order to keep a job in a union shop. Governor Rick Snyder, who has quietly tried to prevent GOP legislators from taking on this “divisive” issue, has nonetheless said he will sign the bill if it reaches his desk — most likely next Tuesday.
There will be a lot of drama before then. Last night, hundreds of protesters filled the state capitol building in Lansing, and eight were arrested when they tried to rush the senate floor. Police had to use pepper spray to control the crowd. “This legislation will return us to the sharecropping days of the Deep South,” thundered State Senator Virgil Smith of Detroit.
The passage of right-to-work is the latest chapter in a war that was declared last March, when Bob King, head of the United Automobile Workers, launched a voter initiative to enshrine collective bargaining and a ban on right-to-work in the state’s constitution, undoing government reforms implemented by Governor Snyder.
Governor Snyder led the fight to defeat the UAW-backed Proposition 2. Normally a non-confrontational personality who had avoided the right-to-work issue, Governor Snyder proved he was indeed “One Tough Nerd,” the moniker that won him the 2010 governor’s race. Proposition 2 lost by 15 percentage points, even as President Obama carried Michigan. Labor’s defeat emboldened conservatives in the state and helped bring Snyder over to their side. “The unions struck at the king, and they got clobbered,” says Inside Michigan Politics editor Bill Ballenger. He explains, “Snyder had his finger in the dike saying ‘it’s not on my agenda,’ and the unions went ahead and grabbed the issue with Proposition 2 and they got killed.”
In the aftermath of Proposition 2’s defeat, the Michigan Chamber of Commerce and other business interests decided they would have to go on the offense if they won and pass right-to-work in a lame-duck session of the legislature after the election.
“They regard right-to-work as the single biggest step that the state needs to take to break the chokehold of unions and bring manufacturers back to the state,” writes Shikha Dalmia of Reason magazine. “If Michigan joins Indiana and many of its southern competitors in becoming an RTW state, it will give an instant shot in the arm to its moribund economy.”
That has already happened in next-door Indiana, which became a right-to-work state last year. The free-market Mackinac Center reports on the effects:
Since that time, the Hoosier State has added 43,300 jobs, while Michigan has lost 7,300. Indiana’s manufacturing sector added 13,900 new jobs, while Michigan’s lost 4,200. Nationally, the numbers are even more telling. Between 1980 and 2011, total employment in right-to-work states grew 71 percent, while employment in forced unionism states grew just 32 percent. Employment in Michigan grew just 14 percent during that same time. Inflation-adjusted compensation over the last decade grew 12 percent in right-to-work states, but just 3 percent in forced unionism states.
Governor Snyder insists that Michigan will not become a replay of Wisconsin, which was consumed for 18 months by union attempts to undo Governor Scott Walker’s reforms. “I feel very comfortable with [this legislation],” he told reporters on Thursday, saying he expected it would prove popular because it leaves collective bargaining in place — unlike Wisconsin’s labor reforms. In addition, the bill includes a $1 million appropriation, making the law immune from public referendum. Snyder and his fellow Republicans have two years to sell the benefits of the law before they must face voters.