Insight by Phil Wilson
I can’t believe it actually happened. A week later it still seems like a dream (or if you’re Bob King of the UAW, a nightmare). Last week Michigan lawmakers enacted right-to-work legislation, making that state the 24th in the nation to do so.
Michigan is the second “rust belt” state in the Midwest to enact a right-to-work law in the last year (not to brag, but I predicted this last year). And notwithstanding my prediction, I still found the Indiana vote surprising, and this Michigan vote is downright shocking. That cracking sound you hear? It’s Hell freezing over.
Literally, in the span of about a month Michigan citizens went from voting on 3 pro-union amendments to the state constitution (none of them passed, but any of them could have) to waking up in the 24th right-to-work state in the country. Unions were stunned.
After their big victory in the Presidential election unions must have felt like they had crested the mountain and were set for some smooth sledding over the next 4 years. But this Michigan vote changes everything. While at the national level unions are still powerful, it is clear that they’ve lost their swagger at the state and local levels. Michigan is just the latest in a series of state setbacks. And if Michigan can go right-to-work, can you really rule out any other state?
As they scramble to explain the unexplainable, unions are pointing to a number of factors that make Michigan an anomaly. They point to a Republican dominated legislature during a lame duck session with many of them term limited. They point to Michigan’s economic problems (epic). They point to the Republican governor who went back on his word about what he called “divisive” legislation.
What really seems to be missing in all this finger pointing is a mirror. Unions in Michigan (and this is far from just a Michigan problem) over-reached dramatically on the state questions in November. Their resounding defeat on all three measures provided a clear signal to Republican leaders that they had a shot (and political cover) to pull off the Hail Mary pass.
Unions in Michigan underestimated the politicians and voters who weren’t bought and paid for by them. Most important, they underestimated Governor Snyder and the political strategists who pulled off what has to be one of the most astounding political coups ever.
Whoever planned this is really smart and learned a lot from previous fights, especially Wisconsin. By passing the same bill in both chambers of the legislature they ensured that at least one of their bills would reach the desk of the Governor after the mandatory waiting period. They timed the votes during a lame duck session and at a time of year that most people had their attention pointed elsewhere. They kept their plans quiet until the last possible moment, giving unions little time to respond.
What does this mean for the future?
For Bob King and the United Auto Workers this may be the end. This defeat does not lie solely at their feet (the SEIU deserves a fair amount of credit too – one of the constitutional amendments was to protect their dues skimming scheme for home care workers). But the UAW has been on the ropes for years and is in financial tatters. A potential cutoff to the dues flow in their most populous state is certainly not going to help matters.
King probably needs to start polishing his resume. As Bob Dylan once sang, people who have forks and knives gotta eat somethin’. All the other unions in the state can probably just lick their wounds and live to fight another day. But King and the UAW are Michigan. After this vote the UAW may not survive as an independent union. Whether through merger or political coup, it is hard to imagine King surviving this debacle.
Will other Midwestern states go right-to-work? It’s an interesting question. Ohio and Pennsylvania are the most likely suspects, especially if Michigan and Indiana’s economies take off (a highly likely prospect if investors feel like the change is permanent).
Companies strongly favor right-to-work states for investment. The problem is most of the current right-to-work states aren’t exactly within easy reach of the major population centers of the Northeast. Ohio and Pennsylvania may not pass right-to-work legislation anytime soon, but if the nation’s economy continues to bump along in its non-recovery mode for another few years it is certainly not out of the question. Political circumstances could provide a window of opportunity in both states.
At the national level, unions have to be very concerned. They seem to be taking one step forward then two steps back. While they have been able to elect their President for two terms, they have been unable to achieve any of their key legislative priorities. Even their regulatory agenda is stuck in various states of judicial review. And these state setbacks are hurting unions where it really counts – their pockets.
I don’t think Michigan will be this country’s last right-to-work state – not by a long shot. In fact, the worst nightmare for unions may be yet to come. Michigan is one of this country’s worst economic messes and has been for decades. Should that economy turn around dramatically – and it very well could – other struggling states with heavy union presence may see right-to-work as the answer. And then the dominos could really start falling.