Big Labor Is Going For Broke in Michigan

Protect Our Jobs ballot initiative will make unions more powerful than the legislature.


We've seen Gov. Scott Walker's battle in Wisconsin and the Chicago Teachers Union strike next door. Now in Michigan comes another Midwestern political showdown that will carry enormous implications for the role of unions

in American life.

The Michigan Supreme Court recently approved the placement of a proposed constitutional amendment on the November ballot. If passed by voters, the so-called Protect Our Jobs amendment would give public-employee unions a potent new tool to challenge any laws—past, present or future—that limit their benefits or collective-bargaining powers. It would also bar Michigan from becoming a right-to-work state in which mandatory union dues are not a condition of employment. The budget implications are dire.

Michigan public unions began pushing the initiative last year, shortly after Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder—facing a $2 billion fiscal hole—capped public spending on public-employee health benefits at 80 percent of total costs. This spring, national labor unions joined the amendment effort after failing to prevent Indiana from becoming a right-to-work state.

Bob King of the United Auto Workers said that Michigan's initiative would "send a message" to other states tempted to follow Indiana's example. The UAW, along with allies in the AFL-CIO and the Teamsters, poured $8 million into gathering 554,000 signatures—some 200,000 more than needed—to put Protect Our Jobs on the Michigan ballot.

The amendment says that no "existing or future laws shall abridge, impair or limit" the collective-bargaining rights of Michigan workers. That may sound innocuous, but according to Patrick Wright of the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, the amendment would hand a broad mandate to unions to challenge virtually any law they don't like.

Wright says that passage would almost certainly mean the end of Michigan's Public Act 112, which made the privatization of schools' food, busing and custodial services off-limits in collective-bargaining negotiations. More than 60 percent of Michigan school districts have privatized these services over the past two decades, resulting in annual savings of about $300 million.

Also unlikely to withstand legal challenge would be last year's Public Act 4, which gave state-appointed emergency managers broad powers to turn around fiscally distressed local entities by, among other things, rewriting union contracts. The act has already been applied to four cities and three school districts that otherwise by now would have had to file for bankruptcy.

Even if unions didn't prevail in court in every instance, notes Wright, the sweeping scope of the initiative would allow them to mount endless challenges to local governments' personnel and pay decisions, making it prohibitively expensive to risk crossing union wishes.

Thanks to media leaks, we know that already the Michigan Education Association has drawn up an internal wish list of all the laws it will challenge if the initiative passes. The targets include a cap on the health-care benefits of teachers, and reforms to teacher tenure that recently enabled schools to promote teachers based on merit rather than seniority alone. But what's really exciting the teachers union is the prospect of killing "interdistrict or intradistrict open enrollment opportunities"—which would otherwise promote some competition in education by letting parents vote with their feet and send their kids to better schools.

The Michigan amendment could also mean the blocking of future laws challenging union privileges. So Michigan's legislature would never be able to, say, pull a Scott Walker and stop doing unions the favor of withholding dues from public-employee paychecks.

It gets worse. The ballot initiative states that it would "override state laws that regulate hours and conditions of employment to the extent that those laws conflict with collective bargaining agreements." In other words, collective-bargaining agreements negotiated behind closed doors would trump the legislature—a breathtaking power grab that would turn unions into a super legislature.

Perhaps the biggest upside for unions is that the proposal would prohibit Michigan from becoming a right-to-work state. Regaining its competitive position with respect to the 23 right-to-work states that have become attractive to manufacturers, even automakers, would be unlikely. Rather, labor would get a field-tested strategy for scrapping those states' right-to-work laws with ballot referendums.

Michigan's business community is incensed, as the initiative—supported by 48 percent of likely voters, according to a September EPIC-MRA poll—would expose companies to higher taxes and uncompetitive labor costs. "It would be a mistake for union bosses to think that the business community would take this lying down," warns Rich Studley of the Michigan Chamber of Commerce.

Gov. Snyder has so far avoided a collision course with unions, even nipping attempts by conservative legislators to push a right-to-work effort. But he has warned that the amendment initiative, which he opposes, might make it impossible for him to hold back any longer: "My concern is that it could start a whole divisive atmosphere of other people trying to put right-to-work on the ballot . . . that would distract from the good things we've got going on."

So Michigan is the new battleground for labor politics. Either its unions' daring scheme will succeed, handing labor a blueprint to reclaim lost ground elsewhere. Or it will fail, with labor's influence continuing to wane nationwide. The stakes couldn't be higher.

This column originally appeared in The Wall Street Journal.

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  1. The problem with the RMS Titanic was not enough holes.

  2. In the picture used for this article, am I the only one who sees two legs bent at the knees in the foreground and the giant fist of unionized workers ready to donkey punch itself into the pussy that is elected politicians?

    Or have I just been reading too much SugarFree Scott Walker fanfic?

    1. That’s the hand they use to jack-off with when they’re supposed to be working.

  3. This is confusing. Unions, in Michigan, are trying to “grab power”? What, was there some hidden in a cabinet somewhere that they forgot about?

  4. Proposing an amendment to the state constitution for the electorate to vote on. How grabby can you get?

    1. In the state where I live, that is a power grab. Outside groups funding the initiative, shadowy support…

      Hell, they put liquor privatization to a public vote here, and it may have well been the Koch brothers trying assassinate the president.


  5. this is why Im voting down all levies. Here in OH, we had SB5 passed and then repealed. The union thugs can tell me what each teacher/fireman/cop gets paid but I can tell them how many we’ll hire.

  6. This is win/win for everyone who doesn’t live in Michigan. If it fails, Michigan has a chance to become prosperous again some day. If it succeeds, the rest of the country can learn from the disaster.

    1. What good is success without unions jobs!!!!!

  7. Bob King of the United Auto Workers said that Michigan’s initiative would “send a message” to other states tempted to follow Indiana’s example.

    That message being “don’t even think about trying to save Michigan.”


  8. Why that’s the most fisting I’ve seen in one picture since last Thursday.

  9. I wish them well. We must destroy the state before we abolish it.

  10. If every state in the union was a right to work state the unions would shrivel and die, not all but most would. They know this, and seeing the writing on the wall this is nothing more than a simple act of self preservation. I hope they all wither and die.

    1. Nothing wrong with right to work, but what is the value in seeing private unions die out? An opportunity for business owners to charge less for labor and increase their bottom lines?

      1. Increased opportunity for individuals that would rather negotiate their own terms of employment. There’s a reason why closed-shop states have the highest unemployment rates, and it’s not “corporate greed”.

      2. @ Jeff,
        If you look at the current set of federal, states laws, regarding worker protection, the Union’s won out a long time ago. So one can ask, “Why are they still there?”

        The trouble is that some of the relatively benign laws, such as protecting the employees right to quit (no shit) – were the issues of the 20’s. Worker safety and comp were the issue in the the 30’s through the 50’s.

        Now it has gone so far beyond that, that the typical Union drones do not believe that an employer has the right to pick the wage he will pay, nor does he have the right to fire someone.

        In short, they have gone rapid, time to put them down.

  11. To make it complete, the amendment should have also included the construction of walls to prevent productive people from leaving the state

    1. On the plus side, it would also keep the people who voted for the amendment from leaving the state.

  12. A more productive ballot for the amendment would allow voters to choose between the one given in the article and a right to work amendment that would clarify that ‘no law shall abridge the freedom of an inidivdual to negotiate the terms of their own employment without the interference of or required payment to any third party.’

  13. Having moved back to Michigan in 2008, I’m almost hoping this passes. Here’s my thinking: there’s this pathology here, on both the left and the right, that someone from the outside will come in and rescue this state. Maybe such a rescue manifests itself a magical return of the automakers, maybe it’s Hollywood (a set of absurdly generous benefits offered during the Granholm administration yielded a handful of straight-to-video Val Kilmer flicks, and were retired when Snyder came into office). Hell, there is a barn along I-96 painted with the sign “Kid Rock: Save Us”, as if it is the responsibility of mid-tier rock-and-rollers to save their native states’ economies. One way or another, it is apparently not up to actual MIchiganders to turn their state’s fortunes around.

    But if this measure passes, it will make the state so obviously toxic to business investment that *nobody* would be dumb enough to bring jobs here. Michigan will be all the hassle of California with none of the upside. And at that point entrepreneurship — which is either ignored or despised by the citizens, news media, and politicians here — will clearly be the only hope for growing the Michigan economy. And while that generation of entrepreneurs will be paying through the nose for public service sector union benefits, at least it’ll be able to make a clean start, unfettered by the Big Business / Big Labor groupthink that should have died 20 years ago.

    1. Crack dealing is not usually impacted negatively…

    2. I think you will wind up with ‘Detroit’ from the Ohio border all the way up to the upper peninsula.

  14. Earth to unions, Earth to unions — this is 2012. That rock-solid monopoly, that little kingdom, that once existed in the UAW is gone, passe, vamoosh. Might be tough to swallow, but it’s time to get in gear with the present, instead of what used to be back in the glory days…

  15. It gets worse. The ballot initiative states that it would “override state laws that regulate hours and conditions of employment to the extent that those laws conflict with collective bargaining agreements.” In other words, collective-bargaining agreements negotiated behind closed doors would trump the legislature?a breathtaking power grab that would turn unions into a super legislature.

    1. Spam comment that quotes graf from article and adds a hyperlink. Please delete.

  16. If this crap actually passes, I’m leaving Michigan. I probably should have done that a couple years ago, but I’m somewhat lazy. This proposal passing will be the kick in the ass that I need to leave so I can see the state collapse from the outside, rather while living in it.

    1. I could imagine “Da Yoopers” in the Upper Peninsula might even ask to left Michigan to create their own state (Superior) or joinning Wisconsin.

  17. Unfortunately it will pass. This state for the most part is liberal territory.

  18. I am not really one who supports public employee unions, but I really am disgusted with the hate for private employee unions. There are always bad apples and the UAW is probably the worst, but there are many unions out there that do a good job of adapting and working with employers. If anything we need more unions in the private sector, especially for white collar professions.

    1. Nothing wrong with private unions when you are not forced to join them. If the union does well by its members it will receive new members voluntarily.

      1. ^This

        Gov unions are not voluntary, and only grow more twisted and coercive over time.
        They also have no counterbalance against their demands.

        Private unions do have a counterbalance, and as long as they are voluntary, they are likely doing more good than harm.

    2. The problem is when unions usually rely on coercive legislation. For example, when Boeing decided that they didn?t want to hire unionized members in Seattle but rather build a plant in SC, the NLRB blocked it

      1. Every interest, with enough cash on hand, tries to get their own pet politician to do something nefarious, like the NLRB-Boeing debacle. Nothing new there. Large corporations play that game as well. So in this regard, Unions are just another muddy pig.

        I do not support what Obama did for the Unions w.r.t. Boeing. The trouble is how to legally go after this sort of shit without creating a mechanism for oppression. The source of the trouble are campaign contributions to the fuckers in office, they get bought this way. The trouble is I am not for more McCain Feingold type legislation either.

        1. Its not always the same.
          Some corporations seek political favors like subsidies or tariffs (ever heard of Solyndra), and that would be basically the same that some unions do.
          I totally oppose that.
          But other companies seek lower taxes and regulations, that is, more freedom.
          And that is a great thing.
          And with regards to campaigns contributions, I dont see what would be a better alternative than complete freedom for anyone to give any money he or she wants to any politician. If not, you would have to rely on some government agency to regulate what is ok and what is not. In the end, censorship can only be imposed by government.

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