Politically Inclined, December 11, 2012
How ‘right-to-work’ became nontoxic in Michigan
By Andrew Scoggin
Michigan, the once-proud bastion of the modern labor movement, became the 24th state to ban mandatory union membership Tuesday. And judging by the political and social undertones, it isn’t all that surprising.
Both the Republican-controlled House and Senate have passed versions for public and private sectors, and Republican Gov. Rick Snyder quickly signed them into law late Tuesday afternoon.
The manner in which the “right-to-work” legislative effort came up in a lame-duck session surprised many, and a whole lot of people are upset about the bills. The Detroit Free Press reported roughly 12,500 protesters around the state capitol at the height of the kerfuffle.
Still, from the outside looking in, it’s still shocking to see this happen in, of all places, Michigan.
Why is this happening right now?
For those who have seen “Lincoln,” they’d know a lame-duck legislature (as in, after an election but before a new session) is a great time to pass controversial measures. Even the fiscal cliff would be a good example nationally of how political actors behave when not as concerned with reelection.
The Michigan GOP has other motivation to push through right-to-work legislation now. The party lost five House seats in the November election, and now holds a narrow eight-seat advantage over Democrats. It might be more difficult to find votes once the new session convenes.
But despite Republican losses, right-to-work advocates gained an immense advantage. A referendum to add collective bargaining rights to the state constitution lost by 16 percentage points. An anti-union law might not be as toxic politically as once thought.
As an Oct. 16 story from the Associated Press said, what happens during the lame-duck session “has as much to do with the candidates’ performance as the proposals” in the election. That’s certainly true here, although the story did not raise the possibility of right-to-work legislation coming up.
After all, neither Snyder nor Republicans had said much about it.
So what’s going on here? Why is it happening at all?
All downfalls and collapses need scapegoats. For hockey fans, it’s NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman. For Republicans, it’s guys like Todd Akin or even Mitt Romney.
And for some Michiganders, it’s unions. They place the blame for the state’s economic struggles on these still-influential bodies, for keeping away businesses and driving them to nonunion states.
Whether that’s a fair assessment is another matter, but it’s hard to deny the momentum behind this train of thought. Every state in the South has right-to-work laws on the books, and many see this as the reason as to why foreign carmakers are building plants and factories there, and not in Michigan.
But more recently, what may have heightened this attitude in Michigan are actions in a neighboring state. (Not you, Ohio. Michigan has had enough of you.)
Indiana passed a similar law earlier this year, becoming the first Midwestern state to ban unions from requiring representation fees. But aside from showing this could happen in the Rust Belt, some in Michigan also saw this as a threat to business interests.
Michigan’s demographics could also explain why passing these laws may not be a political death wish. The state’s population fell between 2000 and 2010 censuses, but the western region’s total actually grew about 3 percent. That area of the state traditionally leans Republican, and the southeast region around Detroit – a Democratic stronghold – no longer makes up a majority of the state’s population.
Also, the proportion of Michigan employees represented by unions is just 18.3 percent as of 2011. It’s near the top among states, but it’s still below places like New York (26.1 percent) and even Alaska (23.7 percent). And while it’s a sizable voting bloc, it’s possible to ignore them altogether in certain areas and still win an election.
What does all this mean?
Questions remain as to this legislation’s impact. It’s unclear how it’ll impact the state’s economy, whether unions’ power will further wane and what effect it’ll have on workers.
Also, although the measures are referendum-proof, it’s still possible to repeal them. Democrats could take back the legislature – though they’d need to make heavy gains in the Senate – and the governorship in 2014. After all, President Barack Obama carried the state by nearly 10 percentage points.
But clearly Michigan, and the country, has changed since unions’ political high-point in the 1930s. Public support isn’t what it used to be, and maybe rightly so. After all, minimum wage laws are now the norm, and labor conditions are much safer than in other nations.
The fact that right-to-work legislation is even possible in Michigan – let alone that it makes some political sense – is as indicative of the labor movement’s strength as anything else.
(Full disclosure: My mom, a second-grade teacher, belongs to a union, and I worked under the auspice of one while at The Indianapolis Star. Also I’m from Michigan, so odds are that’s colored my understanding at least somewhat.)
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