How will GOP handle election letdown? Michigan union fight offers clues.

The moderate and conservative wings of the Michigan GOP are split over whether to move forward on an anti-union bill. Some say it's the sort of thing that cost the GOP votes Tuesday.

Al Goldis/AP/File
Protesters gather in the Michigan Capitol Rotunda in Lansing, Mich., as they rally against Gov. Rick Snyder's proposal to empower emergency financial managers to void union contracts in this 2011 file photo. The governor’s plan helped inspire a 2012 ballot initiative to put collective bargaining rights in the state constitution, which failed.

Growing tensions between the moderate and conservative wings of the Republican Party after the disappointment of Tuesday's elections are already playing out in Michigan, as it considers becoming the latest Midwestern state to take up anti-union legislation.

One bright spot for Republicans Tuesday was the rejection by Michigan voters of a union-backed proposal to amend the state constitution to protect collective-bargaining rights. Now, some Republican lawmakers see that defeat as an opportunity to introduce so-called “right to work” legislation in the upcoming session that adjourns Dec. 20.

Right-to-work legislation targets companies and unions that allow unions to deduct monthly dues from all employees – even if they aren't union members. Republicans say right-to-work legislation creates a friendly business environment, which creates more jobs. Democrats see the legislation as an attempt to break unions.

The potential for a right-ro-work bill in Michigan is significant because the state – as the center of the US auto industry – is in many ways the Mecca of the American labor movement. But following Tuesday's elections, in which many pundits say Republicans underperformed nationally by veering too far right, the debate in Michigan also offers a glimpse at how the tug-of-war within the GOP might play out in one key state.

Union issues have already roiled the Midwest. A 2011 bill to ban collective bargaining for public unions led to protests in Wisconsin and a failed bid to recall the governor earlier this year. A similar bill passed in Ohio was reversed in a voter referendum. Meanwhile, Indiana and Iowa are already among the 23 right-to-work states nationwide – though Democrats in Indiana originally fled the Statehouse in a failed attempt to stop the bill.

It is not certain if the bill will surface in the near future in Michigan. Gov. Rick Snyder (R), a moderate, is on record saying the law is too divisive, while hard-liners like Senate Finance Committee Chairman Jack Brandenburg told the Detroit News Thursday the bill should get pushed through “sooner rather than later.”

“We’ve been very patient with the unions. I think we have the votes to get it done,” state Senator Brandenburg said.

Republicans control both the House and Senate in Michigan, although Democrats narrowed the Republican majority in the House by five Tuesday. Sen. Patrick Colbeck (R) says he plans to introduce the bill but did not specify when. He told the Detroit News that “it would take a Herculean effort” to get the bill passed in the upcoming session, suggesting that supporters might need more time to bring moderate Republicans on board. Those include Senate majority leader Randy Richardville, who has said he did not believe the legislation would be helpful to the state economy.

Even though both have said the bill is not necessary, neither state Senator Richardville nor Governor Snyder has said they would block a right-to-work bill if introduced by their party.

Snyder and like-minded moderates are likely hesitant to go after unions because they see how similar fights in Wisconsin and Ohio galvanized progressives, perhaps helping them get out the vote Tuesday – and helping the president and other Democrats, says William Rosenberg, a political scientist at Drexel University in Philadelphia.

“Those rather aggressive anti-union stances gave unions an opportunity to really organize and, as a result, those earlier skirmishes came back to haunt the Republicans in this presidential race,” Professor Rosenberg says.

After this week’s election, Michigan lawmakers are also walking the same tightrope as their national counterparts in Washington in determining how best to establish their agenda without appearing overly confrontational.

“Politicians don’t want to overreach, in that by overreaching, sometimes you might win a short-term gain, but maybe you’ll lose on the longer-term perspective,” Rosenberg says. “The Republican Party has got an identity problem as to who they are going to be and how to approach it. There’s great tension there.”

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