Michigan: A Right-to-Work State?

AP Photo/Detroit News/Dale G. Young

Pro-union demonstrators crowd the Rotunda at the Capitol in Lansing, Michigan after House and Senate Democrats said there was a possibility of "Right To Work" legislation coming up for a vote.

Labor never ruled Michigan as such. It may have been home to the best and biggest American union, the United Auto Workers, but even at the height of their power, the UAW could seldom elect its candidates to Detroit city government. Still, the UAW dominated the state’s Democratic Party and much of state politics for decades—at least, until the auto industry radically downsized.

Just how downsized union power has become is apparent from the decision of the state’s Republican governor, Rick Snyder, to support a right-to-work bill that began speeding its way through the state’s lame-duck GOP-controlled legislature on Thursday. Should the bill become law—and given Republican control of state government, it’s hard to envision how it won’t—Michigan would join historically more conservative Indiana as the second state from the industrial Midwest to move to right-to-work status. Until last year, when Indiana enacted its statute, right-to-work states were confined to the South, the Plains states and the Mountain West—states devoid of a major union presence. That such laws are now coming to the industrial Midwest is just more evidence of the continual weakening of industrial unions—the unions that have taken the most direct hit from offshoring and mechanization.

But why enact such laws when most unions are no longer big enough to take any bite out of company profits? In fact, the pressure for such laws isn’t coming from companies like Ford or GM, which can how hire new union workers for half of what they pay their more veteran workers. It’s purely political. Weakened though they be in the economic arena, unions still punch well above their weight at election time. That’s one reason why President Obama carried every state in the industrial Midwest save (almost) perpetually Republican Indiana. 

And if anyone doubts that politics lies behind the Michigan Republicans’ decision to enact a right-to-work bill, consider one of the bill’s particulars: the only unions it exempts from the bill’s coverage, the Wall Street Journal is reporting, are police and firefighter unions.  Snyder said that the GOP had carved out that exception because their jobs needed protection from labor strife.

Think about that for a moment. The effect of the Republicans’ exemption would be to ensure police and firefighters have the strongest unions in the state, the ones most capable of taking job actions when they sought to better their pay and working conditions. Elsewhere across the U.S. today, states and cities are trying to scale back pensions and other benefits of their employees, and police and firefighters are often targeted because their pay and benefits exceed those of other public workers. Moreover, historically, governors and mayors have been wary of the power of such unions—Republican governors and mayors in particular. Massachusetts Gov. Calvin Coolidge first came to the nation’s attention by breaking a Boston police strike in 1919—“There is no right to strike against the public safety,” he proclaimed. It was his strikebreaking that won him a place on the 1920 Republican ticket. 

Now, however, Snyder, like Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, has created a police-and-firefighter carve out. The reason is purely political—in Michigan, as in Wisconsin, the police and firefighter unions often support Republicans for state and local office, and Republicans want to make sure that they’ll continue to do so with undiminished clout. The carve-out, said Michigan House Democratic leader Tim Greimel, “makes it very clear that this is not about sound economic policy. It’s motivated by a desire to punish supporters of the Democratic Party.” 

And so it is. 

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