State Fiscal Crisis

Watch Michigan: Public Unions Are Not Yet Finished

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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.

Why?

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.