Michigan Is Big Labor's Next Big Target

The fight over public sector unions moves to the Great Lakes State


Those who thought that Big Labor's recall drive against Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker was its final attempt to maintain its lavish benefits at taxpayers' expense should think again. Win or lose in Wisconsin today, it is already opening a new front in Michigan, pushing a November ballot initiative to permanently enshrine its pay and privileges in the state constitution and prohibit Michigan from ever ending forced unionization.

A Reason-Rupe poll last week gave Walker an eight-point edge over his Democratic rival. More to the point, it found overwhelming support for Walker's efforts to close the state's fiscal gap by requiring public employees to contribute more toward their health care (74 percent) and pension benefits (75 percent)—rather than by raising taxes, which 70 percent oppose. A small majority of 51 percent also supports Walker's move to end automatic deduction of union dues from public employee paychecks. And a plurality of 48 percent supports his limiting contract negotiations to wage issues compared to 46 percent that opposes this.

Big Labor insists that it targeted Walker not because he demanded more contributions from unions but because he attacked their collective bargaining "rights." But Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder followed labor's preferred course—and labor leaders are not sparing him.

Like Walker, Snyder confronted a massive—$2 billion —shortfall and demanded that public employees pick up 20 percent of the tab for their health care benefits. Like Walker, he reformed teacher tenure laws, giving schools more flexibility to recruit and promote good teachers. And like Walker, he ended automatic union-dues deductions from teacher paychecks.

Unlike Walker, however, Snyder did not launch a wholesale attack on the collective bargaining powers of all public unions, taking a more conciliatory approach. He even scolded his fellow Republicans who wanted to use their control of all branches of government to make Michigan a Right to Work state, no longer requiring private-sector workers to pay mandatory union dues as a condition of employment.

But so worried are unions after their loss of the Right to Work fight in Indiana and what looks like an impending loss in Wisconsin that they have decided to make Michigan the battleground where they will reclaim their lost glory.

They are proposing an unprecedented ballot initiative that they call "Protect Our Jobs," but which should be called "Protect Our Jobs and Screw Michigan Taxpayers." It would apply retroactively, nixing even Snyder's modest givebacks and teacher union reforms while making future public employee benefits and wages untouchable by elected officials. And it would constitutionally prohibit Michigan from ever becoming a Right to Work state.

United Auto Workers chief Bob King himself launched the initiative after a meeting of national labor leaders in March, a sign of just how seriously they are taking this fight. He also pledged $15 million—and the Michigan Education Association another $1.8 million—to bankroll the initiative. Backers have until early July to gather about 325,000 valid signatures to qualify for the November ballot—not a tall order given their big war chest.

All of this has Michigan's business community—which would face higher taxes and no respite ever from uncompetitive labor costs—deeply upset. "It would be a mistake for union bosses to think that the business community would take this lying down," warned Rich Studley, president of the Michigan Chamber of Commerce, which plans to fight the initiative tooth-and-nail. Ironically, the chamber had avoided taking a position on Right to Work because its membership was deeply divided on the issue. But the need to fight this initiative will unite them, prompting the holdouts to overcome their reluctance.

Even more dangerously for the unions, a failure of their ballot initiative will look like an endorsement of Right to Work, making it difficult for Snyder to keep its Republican backers boxed in. About 55 percent of Michigan's likely voters already support their cause, and RTW supporters see this initiative as an opportunity to bump this number to 60 percent, something that'll make the law virtually unstoppable. If Michigan, the union capital of the country, switches into the Right to Work column, it'll create momentum for the remaining 27 non-RTW states to switch, too.

By overreaching, then, unions might end up accelerating the very nightmare they are trying to avert. So why are they doing this?

Unions have been in trouble for decades, with overall membership declining from 36 percent of the work force in 1945 to 11.9 percent today. Only 6.9 percent of the private work force is unionized now—something that will decline even more if Right to Work laws keep proliferating unchecked. What's more, public-sector union membership is suffering too as governors like Walker and Snyder curtail benefits and bargaining rights. So unless unions do something radical to reverse this trend, they fear (correctly) they might soon go extinct.

The Protect Our Jobs initiative is their field test. If successful, it could become their blueprint to pre-emptively ban or scrap Right to Work laws in the 22 other states that allow legislative action through referendums and ballot initiatives. And it will allow them to constitutionally lock in their public-sector bargaining privileges and protect their membership numbers.

In short, Big Labor is upping the ante in Michigan and going for broke.

Wisconsin was certainly contentious. But Michigan might become downright explosive over the next six months. And whichever side wins will ignite fires across the country.

Reason Foundation Senior Analyst Shikha Dalmia is a columnist at The Daily, where a version of this column originally appeared.