Michigan 'right to work' law: Worse for unions than Wisconsin setback?

Wisconsin revoked collective bargaining for most public-sector unions, a slap to the labor movement. Michigan's bid to become a 'right to work' state is an even bigger blow to unions.

Carlos Osorio/AP
Thousands of protesters rally outside the state Capitol as lawmakers push through final versions of right-to-work legislation in Lansing, Mich., Tuesday, Dec. 11. A Republican-controlled legislature looks set to pass a so-called 'right-to-work' law banning compulsory union fees.

Last year Wisconsin was a battleground for union rights, as Republican Gov. Scott Walker pushed through a law limiting collective bargaining for many public-sector unions and then survived a recall election. This year organized labor’s focus has turned to Michigan, where a Republican-controlled legislature looks set to pass a so-called “right-to-work” law banning compulsory union fees.

Which of these might end up a worse defeat for US unions? We’d say Michigan, without question.

Michigan is the birthplace and stronghold of the United Auto Workers and a state steeped in union history. In Michigan they still remember 1937’s “Battle of the Overpass,” where Ford guards beat UAW officials near Dearborn’s Rouge plant in a pyrrhic victory that led to the union’s rise.

President Obama beat Mitt Romney in Michigan by 10 percentage points despite the fact that Mr. Romney grew up there. If Republicans can enact laws limiting union power in Michigan, where might they turn next?

“In political terms this really does seem like the tipping point ... if right-to-work can pass in Michigan, then why shouldn’t Republicans press for it in Wisconsin or Ohio or Pennsylvania?” writes Slate’s Moneybox columnist Matthew Yglesias.

Some liberals are bitter about this looming defeat. They say that while 24 states currently have right-to-work laws, the right’s push to spread such legislation had stalled – until now.

“If their win in Michigan sticks, the hoary, Dixie-fried Right-To-Work cause will shake off the dust of the political graveyard and become the hot new thing across the industrial Midwest. It’s sad but true,” writes Ed Kilgore in the Washington Monthly’s Political Animal blog.

But in some ways labor’s possible loss in Michigan shouldn’t be surprising.

First, it’s not as Democratic a state as you might think. Or rather, it’s a state where the Democratic vote is concentrated in Detroit, Ann Arbor, and a few other cities, while Republicans are spread out in a large geographic area. The GOP controls both Michigan’s House and Senate, after all.

Michigan has 15 congressional districts. Nine of them lean Republican, according to the partisan voting index of Charlie Cook’s Political Report. Six are Democratic, some by huge margins.

Second, labor recently made a large tactical error. It pushed for a proposed amendment to the Michigan constitution that would enshrine collective bargaining rights. The point was to head off the changes pushed through by the Republicans across Lake Michigan in Wisconsin. That measure was on the ballot in November and lost badly. It ended up as an advertisement for labor’s weakness instead of its strength.

Third, the UAW isn’t what it once was. In the 1970s it boasted more than 1.5 million members. Now UAW membership is fewer than 400,000 and declining. GM and Chrysler have been through managed bankruptcies, and workers throughout the state are wary of further disruptions.

On Tuesday the Michigan House approved a version of the contentious right-to-work law despite union protests outside the state Capitol in Lansing. Gov. Rick Snyder has said he’ll sign final versions of the bill for both public and private unions as early as Wednesday.

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