And now there are two dozen. This Tuesday, December 11, the Michigan House of Representatives passed, and Governor Rick Snyder signed, a pair of laws designed to protect employees from having to pay dues (or “agency fees” in lieu of joining) to a union in order to keep their jobs. The measures, one each applying to the private and public sector, make Michigan the nation’s 24th state with “Right to Work” legislation. “We are moving forward on the topic of workplace fairness and equality,” stated Gov. Snyder during an evening press conference following passage. Unions are taking the opposite view. About 12,500 opponents showed up at the State Capitol Building in Lansing to protest, with about 2,500, many of them shouting slogans, jamming the interior. In the wake of defeat, labor officials are vowing to reverse the laws. For now, Michigan has eclipsed Wisconsin as a focal point for labor conflict.
Supporters of the Right to Work principle must be feeling a little dazed by it all. The Midwest Great Lakes states are where labor activism in this country was born and still thrives. Perhaps nowhere is this more true than in Michigan. Workers at General Motors’ Fisher Body plant in Flint for several months during 1936-37 invented the sit-down strike as an organizing and bargaining tool to great effect; from that point on the fledgling United Auto Workers (UAW) would be a force to be reckoned with. Michigan also was the launching pad for the careers of Teamster bosses Jimmy Hoffa and Frank Fitzsimmons. The Ford Motor Company River Rouge plant in Dearborn was the site of the Ford Hunger March (1932) and the Battle of the Overpass (1937), two of most bloody and tragic confrontations in the history of labor-management relations. And union membership remains high in Michigan, despite its decline; 17.5 percent of the state’s work force last year belonged to a union – down from 28.4 percent in 1985, but still the fifth-highest percentage in the U.S. Union officials and loyal rank and file, to make a long story short, have a strong emotional attachment to Michigan – it’s their turf.
Rick Snyder, elected governor in 2010 as a Republican benefiting from Tea Party activism, is a logical target of union activists. Yet he’s actually been a somewhat reluctant warrior compared to other first-term GOP conservative governors such as Scott Walker (Wisconsin), John Kasich (Ohio) and Rick Scott (Florida). In the wake of the passage of President Obama’s health care overhaul, for example, Snyder instructed his administration to implement the new law. He also declined to cut state Medicaid contributions. He accepted federal funding for passenger rail upgrades. And he refrained from supporting legislation that he believed would weaken union collective bargaining authority, either in the public or private sector.
At the same time, Snyder was concerned over the state’s high unemployment, frozen pensions and slow growth, each driven to some extent by unsustainable union wage and benefit demands. Michigan, in his mind, had to become a more attractive place to do business. He pushed for, and got, business tax reform. The GOP-controlled legislature, by a razor-thin margin, replaced its corporate tax code with a flat 6 percent rate that went into effect at the start of this year. Snyder frequently has cited neighboring Indiana under Governor Mitch Daniels as a model for job creation. Amazon, Caterpillar and Toyota have been among the dozens of companies recently expanding or announcing plans to expand in the Hoosier state, thanks to business-friendly policies. In 2010, for example, Indiana officials successfully persuaded Caterpillar Inc. to spend $50 million to renovate a vacant transformer plant in Muncie where it would build diesel-electric locomotives, aided by state tax abatements and grants. And most crucially, this February 1, Indiana became the 23rd state to enact a Right to Work law. The Midland-Mich.-based Mackinac Center for Public Policy a couple weeks ago estimated that Indiana since has added a net of 43,300 jobs while Michigan has lost 7,300.
If Michigan were to compete with Indiana, to say nothing of other states, Snyder argued, then it should retool itself as open for business. This idea apparently didn’t appeal to his Democratic predecessor, Jennifer Granholm – and to ill effect. Indiana’s approval of a Right to Work law, and the favorable response by many out-of-state firms to it, reportedly swung Snyder toward the Right to Work column.
Snyder’s newfound resolve would be tested this fall when the state’s unions and allies successfully petitioned to get an initiative, Proposal 2, on the November ballot. The measure would have amended the Michigan constitution to authorize unions, especially public-sector unions, to override any state or local legislation ostensibly undermining union collective bargaining rights. With slightly over half of all Michigan state and local government employees unionized, the measure stood a reasonable chance of passage. But it failed by (official count) 57 to 43 percent. Unions cited the defeat as a product of “corporate special interests” and “fear-mongering ads.” More likely, the outcome was due to the reluctance of state voters to make collective bargaining into a constitutional mandate. They instinctively sensed a power grab. Snyder emphasized after the election that he still believed in the collective bargaining process, but that Proposal 2 represented a “massive overreach” by its inclusion in the state constitution.
Republican lawmakers saw an opportunity to do what many observers thought ill-advised, if not impossible: Pass Right to Work legislation. The still-powerful unions and their Democratic Party allies would never go for anything that prevented a union from inserting clauses into a labor agreement forcing employers to fire non-joining employees. Indeed, Gov. Snyder initially was hesitant about introducing such legislation, calling it “divisive.” But in the wake of the defeat of Proposal 2, the idea suddenly looked an opportunity to certain GOP lawmakers. Led by a pair of Republicans, Sen. Patrick Colbeck and Rep. Mike Shirkey, supporters quickly went to work, knowing the opportunity might not arise again for some time given the Democratic seat pickup in the 2012 elections.
In the end, supporters emerged with two Right to Work bills, one applying to the private sector and the other to the public sector. As a compromise, the public-sector bill would exempt police and firefighters unions from coverage. The Senate, mainly along party lines, on Thursday, December 6, passed the private-sector version by 22-16 and the public-sector version by 22-4. The respective House votes, each taken five days later on December 11, were 58-52 and 58-51 in favor. Governor Snyder promptly signed the bill into law, set to take effect in March. Striking a conciliatory note, he declared: “This isn’t about us versus them. This is about Michiganders.”
Other supporters have been at least as effusive in their praise. Rep. Lisa Lyons, R-Alto, said, “This is the day Michigan freed its workers.” Scott Hagerstrom, director of the Michigan affiliate of the Arlington, Va.-based free-market advocacy group, Americans for Prosperity, called passage of the law “a win-win for Michigan’s economy, for individual freedom.” Greg McNeilly, head of the ad hoc Michigan Freedom Fund, remarked after passage: “I think today is their (the unions’) Waterloo. To see the birthplace of forced unionization do a turnabout is a very monumental achievement, and it is historic.” And Mark Mix, president of the Springfield, Va.-based National Right to Work Committee (NRWC), called the vote “a great day for Michigan’s workers and taxpayers,” adding, “I would like to congratulate Michigan’s workers for their newly protected freedom to work without union affiliation as a condition of their employment.”
Unions and their political allies, by contrast, for days have been up in arms and loaded for bear. “The sleeping tiger is awake now,” remarked AFL-CIO Michigan Chapter President Karla Swift. “We have 2014 as a goal to shift out and win justice.” Congressman Sander Levin, D-Mich., the ranking Democrat on the House Ways and Means Committee, called the passage of the measures “a terrible result.” Michigan Senate Democratic Leader Gretchen Whitmer described herself as “livid.” Democratic Rep. Douglas Geiss, perhaps in a mixture of lament and advocacy, stated during floor debate: “There will be blood. I really wish we had not gone here…I do not see solace. I do not see peace.” Valerie Constance, a Wayne County community college instructor and a member of the American Federation of Teachers, sat on the steps of the State Capitol with a sign in the shape of a tombstone reading, “Here lies democracy.” Bernie Ricke, president of United Auto Workers Local 600, remarked: “It’s an attack on working families, and we’re gonna be here. We’re not gonna stand for it.” And President Obama weighed in with the opposition during an eleventh-hour Monday visit to Redford Township, Mich. in suburban Detroit. “You know, these so-called Right to Work laws, they don’t have anything to do with economics,” he said. “They have everything to do with politics. What they’re really talking about is giving you the right to work for less money.”
Union opposition has expressed itself in more than statements. Before and during the day of the vote, assembled activists in Lansing showed a readiness for street action. Protestors chanted, “No justice! No peace!,” “Shame on you” and “Governor Snyder, just say no.” At least one protestor landed four sucker punches against Fox News contributor Steven Crowder. Several union supporters used knives to slash a tent legally granted to Americans for Prosperity’s Michigan chapter and then trampled on the tarp with people still inside. Two men were arrested after forcing their way into a building that housed several of the governor’s offices. Another protestor grabbed a policewoman and tried to pull her into the crowd before getting a dose of pepper spray. And in a more traditional union gesture, activists set up large inflatable rats on the Capitol lawn.
The only way to defuse this situation, say labor activists and partisan supporters, is to overturn the legislation. AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka vowed that elected officials anywhere who support Right to Work or otherwise oppose the interests of organized labor would “pay a steep political price.” Michael Bolton, director of United Steelworkers District 2, which covers Michigan and Wisconsin, declared: “What this means is that for the next two years, we are going to work hard to elect candidates who support the middle class and working class and see what we can do to get this bill turned over.” Longtime progressive activist Robert Borosage, co-director of the George Soros-backed Campaign for America’s Future, sees battles like this as part of a larger war. He explained in the wake of the November elections: “In 2012, candidates who supported the economic interests of the many over the few won their elections. Populism was the voice, but economic opportunity was the message. The pundits may wring their hands, but in the future it won’t be values voters, angry white men or soccer moms that win elections. It will be class war.” In the same vein, Teamster President James P. Hoffa, appearing on CNN after the Right to Work vote and Gov. Snyder’s signature, declared: “This is just the first round of a battle that’s going to divide this state. We’re going to have a civil war in this state.”
But recruiting all those union troops may prove a lot easier said than done. First, overturning a law, by its nature, is harder than preventing its enactment in the first place. And this surely has held true on the issue of forced union dues. All 23 states enacting Right to Work legislation (prior to Michigan) pursuant to Section 14(b) of the Taft-Hartley Act of 1947 have retained their law; none have reversed them. Second, nothing succeeds like success. Evidence has shown that economies of Right to Work states perform better than those of non-Right to Work states. Data from the U.S. Commerce Department’s Bureau of Economic Analysis and the U.S. Labor Department’s Bureau of Labor Statistics, for example, indicate that during 2001-11, private-sector compensation in Right to Work states grew by an inflation-adjusted rate of 12 percent; the increase for non-Right to Work states was only about 3 percent for this period. And according to the NRWC-affiliated National Institute for Labor Relations Research, the number of persons covered by job-based private employer health insurance rose by nearly 1 percent during 1999-2009 in Right to Work states but fell by almost 7 percent elsewhere. In other words, even Michigan residents skeptical of the Right to Work idea may decide that their own version isn’t so bad after all.
The Right to Work principle is not about “war” on the working class, the middle class or any other class of people. Nor is it about denying labor unions the right to organize or bargain with employers. Unions will have as much right to operate in Michigan as they have had for decades. What they won’t have a right to do anymore is force an employer to fire employees who won’t contribute union dues or agency fees. This is hardly an injustice. In a world where liberty prevails, a person’s ultimate right is the right to say “no.”