State Fiscal Crisis

Watch Michigan: Public Unions Are Not Yet Finished


Some progressives seem to have entered the fourth stage of grief following Big Labor's devastating loss in Wisconsin and are in full reflection mode. Bill Galston of The New Republic wrote a piece last week predicting doom for public unions, aptly titled "The Death Knell Tolls for Public Unions." Ezra Klein of the Washington Post noted that Wisconsin means that public unions are not coming back, ever. Kevin Drum of Mother Jones dittoed Ezra.

These are all sober reflections that demonstrate that not all progressives are burying their heads in the sand, refusing to face reality. But much as I wish Galston & Co. were right, I think their fatalism is premature. Entities struggling for survival don't just lay down and die after receiving one body blow, albeit a big one. They fight back. And labor has at least one big fight still left in it, which it is taking to Michigan, Wisconsin's neighbor.

Michigan will be Ground Zero this election season where Big Labor will try to regain lost ground and test a comeback strategy that, if successful, will become a blueprint for the 22 or so states that allow legislative action through ballot referendums.

As I wrote last week, the UAW and the Michigan Education Association have committed almost $20 million to bankroll a November ballot initiative called "Protect Our Jobs" that would, among other things, amend Michigan's constitution to: reinstate the paltry benefits cuts that public unions were recently required to swallow to help balance the budget; lock in current union wages and privileges by making them off limits to an elected legislature, a la California; permanently ban Michigan from becoming a Right to Work state.

(Unions have until early July to gather the requisite signatures, something that they'll have little difficulty doing given all the money at their disposal.)

A union-friendly federal judge launched the first volley in this fight last week by issuing a preliminary injunction preventing a new Michigan law ending automatic payroll due deductions in school districts from going into effect. The injunction is a sign that she is preparing to throw out the law when she rules, which could be as early as this week. (Unlike Scott Walker, Michigan Governor Rick Snyder has sought to end such deductions only for school unions, leaving untouched all other public employee unions.)

Public unions in Wisconsin too had got sympathetic judges to over-rule Walker's reforms but voters ultimately sided with Walker. Michigan, however, could turn out differently.


For the same reason that unions prevailed in Ohio but failed in Wisconsin: it's easier to win a referendum than a recall—because, as Alec MacGillis notes, the first is a straight-out rejection, the other involves a choice between the guy in office and the guy who will replace him. Indeed, without a living, breathing and fallible human representing them, unions can keep the focus on Snyder, depicting him as an extremist whose wings need to be clipped, even though he's anything but.

Two: The initiative is very, very cleverly worded and to see the radical – even diabolical—intent behind its innocuous veneer would require an extremely informed electorate. For example, the initiative opens by declaring that:

The people shall have the rights to organize together to form, join or assist labor organizations, and to bargain collectively with a public or private employer through an exclusive representative of the employees' choosing, to the fullest extent not preempted by the laws of the United States.

Who could be against the "rights" of "the people" to organize? And who would be against giving all "the people" – in the public and private sector – the same "rights"? That would be downright un-American – tantamount to smearing the American flag with apple pie and then setting it on fire. But collective bargaining "rights" in the private and public sector are two entirely different things. In the first, workers sit on one side of the table and their employer on the other when negotiating. But in the public sector, workers effectively negotiate with themselves given that they sit on one side and people they have elected (using forced dues) on the other.

Three: By confronting public unions head on, Walker raised public awareness about the havoc their lavish wages and benefits were wreaking on the state budget. He forced state residents to consider the stark choices before them: Get rid of union privileges and perks or face tax increases and/or massive cuts in government programs, something that a vast majority of Wisconsinites were not prepared to accept, a Reason-Rupe poll found.

What's more, by enacting his reforms, Walker demonstrated that union alarmism about massive layoffs, decimated middle class, and the falling sky was not only unjustified – it was completely false.

By contrast, Governor Snyder came into office declaring that he didn't want a "divisive" battle with unions because that would detract from his priority of reforming Michigan's business-busting taxes. But his timidity didn't avert the fight, it is just forcing him to conduct it on union terms rather than his own. What's more, unlike Walker, Snyder will go into this fight having missed an opportunity to educate Michigan voters about what's at stake.

Doing so between now and November will be an uphill task that will prompt the opponents of Protect Our Jobs to match union spending dollar for dollar and more. So if you thought Wisconsin was intense, wait and watch what happens in Michigan this election season.

As the Chinese curse goes, may you live in interesting times.

NEXT: A.M. Links: Scott Walker Begs to Differ With Mitt Romney, American on No-Fly List Has to Cross Border on Foot, Kelly Ayotte VP Speculation

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  1. If you’re a true believing progressive ideologue like Klein or Drum, why would you support government employee unions?

    Logically, they will drive up the costs and retard the implementation of every great government program that you fantasize about. Even worse, the inevitable employee sloth that unions always bring about will turn the larger public against government.

    So why idealize them?

    1. If you’re a true believing progressive ideologue like Klein or Drum, why would you support government employee unions?

      As a progressive ideologue, you are a (crypto-)totalitarian. “Everything for the state, nothing against the state, nothing outside the state.”

      Thus, pubsec unions are good because they are, effectively, an arm of the state. Their members are all state agents, their funding is all from state coffers.

      Further, pubsec unions are a big part of the progressive/totalitarian infrastructure. They provide foot soldiers and funding for the Total State.

      What’s not to love? Driving up costs isn’t a problem for the state, after all. That’s what taxpayers are for.

      1. Lenin and FDR were both publicly against public unions. They both gave a version of the rationale that the people were now in charge so if you strike you’re striking against the people and yourself. I’m sure they just didn’t want to deal with them.

        1. Lenin was against anything that wasn’t 100% controlled by Lenin. He was all about exterminating everything outside the Communist Party.

          FDR (I’m guessing, here) was against pubsec unions because there was no upside for him. He was getting everything he wanted without them. The support they now give to the Total State and the Dems was only a potential, but the grief they would give him as they organized began their looting was much more imminent.

          Now, however, that the horse has already left the barn, good progressives see pubsec unions as an essential part of the Total State, and support them.

      2. I think it’s more that public employee unions are unions, and they are in favor of unions.

    2. Government retireries and corporate executives will live in their own gated communities surrounded by shacks housing the taxpayers.

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  3. When I lived in Houston in the 1980s I saw lots of Michigan plates. Where are they migrating to these days?

    1. Almost all the ones who can have all left, is my understanding.

  4. permanently ban Michigan from becoming a Right to Work state.

    Even if this passes, it could be reversed by a future referendum. So it’s not permanent, only hard to undo.

    1. Why undo it? When Michigan goes into receivership, convert it into a penal colony (with the main prison in Detroit, of course), and leave the law permanently as a reminder of the threat of pubsec unions.

      1. Contrary to stereotype, Michigan isn’t currently doing all that badly. The unemployment rate is down to about the national average. And Michigan put all new state employees (though not teachers) on 401K style retirement programs in the late 1990s which has saved it a lot of money in pension liabilities:…..ion-2011-7

        1. That may all be true, but the private sector that is left in Michigan is utterly unable to pay for Michigan’s current (bloated) government.

    2. Since it’s being proposed as a constitutional amendment, the only way to undue it would be another constitutional amendment. Not an easy thing to do, especially without the manpower of organized labor.

      1. If you can have a referendum to pass a constitutional amendment, you can have a referendum to repeal one just as easily.

  5. The primary difference is that Michigan is not Wisconsin. My impression is that the Michigan electorate is much more gung-ho about unions compared to those in Wisconsin

    That’s probably why Snyder resisted confronting the unions with any force to begin with.

    1. Home of the UAW?. As long as there’s a domestic auto industry, there WILL be a UAW.

      More’s the pity.

      1. There’s quite a bit of auto manufacturing in the US that doesn’t involve the UAW.

      2. UAW workers don’t work for the government- that makes a big difference. The UAW was a great union when I belonged to it.

        1. UAW workers don’t work for the government- that makes a big difference.

          Oh, but they do. Aside from those working for Dodge and GM, the UAW has pubsec locals.

          1. I am against pubsec locals and Teamster Union cops. Cops battled against the early organizing of labor.

  6. “But collective bargaining ‘rights’ in the private and public sector are two entirely different things…in the public sector, workers effectively negotiate with themselves given that they sit on one side and people they have elected (using forced dues) on the other.”

    Why does that make any difference? Especially to the point of making them “entirely” different things?
    The claim here seems to be that because a public employee plays two different roles, one as a worker and the other as a citizen this is some kind of illegitimate conflict of interest and so his economic rights have to be taken away because of this. But virtually any government action is going to have some who disagree and some who agree with it, yet that doesn’t mean that everybody who cares about the issue has a pernicious conflict of interest — they still get to, for example, petition the legislature or the courts to adopt their policy. So the fact that someone might play two roles — one as a believer in a certain policy and one as a voting citizen, is not considered to be any problem at all in terms of the conflict of interest. So this, which is the only argument I have yet seen against collective bargaining by public employees, just seems silly and the result of lazy thinking. I really do wish somebody would explain this to me in a way that addresses this point, because maybe I’m wrong or am missing something, but I can’t seem to ever get anybody to respond with anything that makes any sense.

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