In a stunning development, Michigan, a birthplace of the union movement, enacted a “right to work” law, making it the 24th state to have passed such legislation. It thus joins such anti-union bastions as Alabama, Arizona, South Carolina, and Wyoming.
The law emerged, as a fine Reuters report showed, through savvy political entrepreneurship from two Tea Party legislators and money and organization from Michigan’s conservative activist billionaire Richard DeVos, co-founder of Amway.
Opportunism by Gov. Rick Snyder and arrogance and miscalculation from United Auto Workers’ president Bob King also came into play. And so, Michigan becomes the latest battleground in the class war over union rights and collective bargaining that’s shaking the Midwest.
Indiana passed right-to-work laws earlier this year. Ohio passed a law limiting collective bargaining, which was overturned by a referendum. And of course, in the most divisive battle of all, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker pushed severe limitations on public workers’ rights through a Republican-dominated state legislature. He survived a heavily financed recall election in June, but some legislative allies did not.
Conservatives support right-to-work laws because they give workers “freedom of choice” to join unions or not. But under federal law, employees in union shops—even in Michigan–can opt out. Still, they must pay the proportion of union dues that covers collective bargaining. This is to avoid the “free rider” problem, in which people who don’t pay those dues benefit from representation financed by those who do.
Right-to-work laws eliminate even that requirement. They help “defund” unions, weakening their bargaining power and, of course, their political clout. Progressives say that’s the secret agenda of people like DeVos and the Koch brothers, who have backed this movement heavily: Unions are the biggest organized source of funding for Democrats.
Michigan’s law was carefully crafted to avoid some of the problems that occurred elsewhere. Public sector workers were covered, but not police and fire fighters—a big source of friction in Wisconsin. And because the legislature appropriated some money for implementation, this law may be exempt from a referendum that overturned Ohio’s labor law.
Michigan Republicans lost five seats in the November election, and a labor-sponsored proposition to enshrine collective bargaining in the state constitution was defeated. The right-to-work law’s sponsors moved quickly, passing the bill in a lightning strike against unions. Gov. Snyder, who earlier had opposed such a law as too divisive, reversed course and signed it, blaming the union for opening the whole can of worms.
That’s disingenuous—the UAW blundered by pushing Proposal 2, but this is pure political opportunism. The Republicans rushed a major piece of legislation that nearly no one campaigned on through a lame-duck legislative session, overturning 80 years of law and history.
Unions have caused a lot of problems for the auto industry, and Michigan needs to be more competitive to attract jobs. And the power of public sector unions to extract raises and pension benefits out of bankrupt states is a very big problem.
But why not address this through legislation that grows out of dialogue with the public and unions themselves, as Gov. Chris Christie did in New Jersey? That’s how you build a real consensus for change. The way the Michigan bill was rammed through a lame-duck legislature and signed by the governor without a real debate tells you all you need to know.