Politics & Policy

What Next for Right-to-Work?

Don’t expect other states to follow Michigan any time soon.

Conservative groups are vowing to follow up on their stunning success in passing a right-to-work law in Michigan with efforts to do the same in other states. But don’t expect the next domino to fall anytime soon.

Unions have enough support for now from moderate Republicans in GOP-controlled states such as Ohio and Pennsylvania to block right-to-work legislation. States such as Missouri and Montana, which have legislatures friendly to right-to-work, have Democratic governors who pledge to veto any such law. All of those states are likely prospects for reform at some point in the future, but not now.

Michigan turns out to have had a unique set of circumstances. Unions overplayed their hand earlier this year when they put an  initiative on the ballot that would have put prohibitions on making any changes in collective bargaining into the state’s constitution. Voters turned down the proposal in November by 58 percent to 42 percent, giving GOP legislators and Governor Rick Snyder reason to believe that the electorate would now accept right-to-work. Evidence that neighboring Indiana had won new manufacturing jobs by passing right-to-work in early 2012 was another big boost.

But in Ohio, which borders both Michigan and Indiana, the story is different. Governor John Kasich said this week that his state is already competing well with its neighbors and he has higher priorities than right-to-work. GOP legislators are also still smarting from their failed attempt to pass Wisconsin-style collective bargaining reform in 2011. The reform law, known as Senate Bill 5, was poorly conceived and badly defended. It was rejected in a citizen’s referendum by a stunning 61 percent to 39 percent landslide.

Ohio Republicans are leery of stirring up another hornet’s nest. Incoming state senate president Keith Faber says an issue as controversial as right-to-work will have to be settled by a vote of the people. Chris Littleton of the group Ohioans for Workplace Freedom is trying to collect 386,000 signatures by next July to put a right-to-work proposal on the ballot. Interest in his initiative has gone up with the news of Michigan’s move, but for now major donors are still sitting on the sidelines.

A key Republican opponent of any action on right-to-work is Jo Ann Davidson, the 84-year-old chairwoman of the Ohio Casino Control Commission. A former state-house speaker, she is an influential voice in the ear of Governor Kasich. She vividly recalls that the Republican party suffered a devastating defeat in 1958 when a right-to-work measure lost on that year’s ballot and isn’t convinced the political climate has changed enough.

In Pennsylvania, Republican governor Tom Corbett has announced that he would sign a right-to-work bill if it reached his desk, but there is no sign the GOP legislature wants to put it there. “We are probably one or two election cycles away from having enough Republicans who will stand up to union pressure,” Matt Brouilette, head of the free-market Commonwealth Foundation, told me.

He noted that in 2011, conservatives were bitterly disappointed when teachers’ unions were able to convince enough Republicans to switch their votes to block a school-choice measure.

In Wisconsin, Governor Scott Walker announced this week that he has no intention of pushing for right-to-work because it would distract from his other measures to improve the state’s business climate. His aides also say the state is exhausted from too many election battles and they have to focus on a key election for the state’s supreme court this April, which will decide if the conservative majority in that body is maintained.

New Hampshire almost passed right-to-work last year when Republicans had both houses of the state legislature. “We were within five or six votes [in the 400-member state house] of having enough support to override a Democratic governor’s veto,” former house speaker Bill O’Brien told me. But this November, Republicans narrowly lost control of the state house and Maggie Hassan, the new Democratic governor, is a firm opponent of right-to-work.

Montana and Missouri both have Republican legislatures that likely could pass right-to-work bills, but both states also have Democratic governors, and the legislatures lack the two-thirds vote needed to override a veto. “I think we’re going to require first what Michigan has, and that’s a strong, conservative, Republican governor who is willing to lead on that issue,” Missouri speaker of the house Tim Jones told an AP reporter. But that doesn’t mean some states aren’t going to move on union reforms. Jones says starting next month Missouri’s legislature will consider proposals to scale back “union wage” requirements for government construction projects and may require unions to receive permission from their members before spending dues money for political purposes.

What Michigan’s right-to-work success proves is that each state has a unique set of political circumstances when it comes to unions. For some states, a moment will appear when all the political stars are in alignment and something as bold as right-to-work is possible. For others, a go-slow approach pursuing less ambitious reforms is necessary. Even in California, voters in Democratic cities such as San Jose and San Diego have given overwhelming support to curbs on public-employee pensions.

What is clear is that, for the first time in decades, unions are on the political defense at the state level, and nationally their attempts to expand their power have not met with success in Congress. That’s why an important part of the battle will be fought in the coming months over President Barack Obama’s ambitious agenda to use federal regulatory powers to give unions what they want.

— John Fund is national-affairs columnist for NRO.


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