In early 2011, pro-union activists raised a ruckus at the Wisconsin statehouse. They were raging in opposition to Gov. Scott Walker’s public-sector union reforms. The laws passed, and Walker survived a subsequent union-led recall effort. But the real question of who won that fight may be decided in Michigan this month.
That’s because state Republican leaders there are mulling whether to join Wisconsin’s union reform push with a state “right-to-work” law. Republicans control the governorship and both houses of the legislature — and by most accounts, they have the votes.
What’s holding them back is the fear that they’ll face a backlash like the one Walker faced, poisoning the legislature’s efforts to pass anything else.
The stakes are high. If the Republicans back down, it could belatedly justify Big Labor’s scorched-earth tactics in Wisconsin and elsewhere. Despite Walker’s survival, it will signify that lawmakers in other states are unsure whether such reform efforts are worth the trouble.
If, on the other hand, Michigan does become the 24th state to adopt right-to-work, it will be a major milestone in the decline of union power in the United States. The historic home of the auto industry will have rejected the pleas of its own unions. Other states may start looking at similar legislation.
Time is short. Advocates think the current legislative lame-duck session is their best shot to push it through. That gives them — at best — two and half weeks.
“I would say it was way more likely a week or two ago, especially right after the election,” said Scott Hagerstrom, Michigan director of Americans for Prosperity, which is pushing for the law. “As this drags on, the odds do go down.”
Right-to-work laws make it illegal for union contracts to demand that workers either join a union or pay dues to one as a condition of employment. Fans argue that right-to-work laws help states attract business and safeguard workers’ individual rights. Critics say they are merely a pretext for sapping union power.
After Walker allowed public employees to opt out of being in a union, the Wisconsin branch of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees lost 45 percent of its members in the first month, according to the Wall Street Journal. Private-sector unions fear similar attrition if workers are given the option.
Lawmakers in Michigan have talked about adopting right-to-work for years now in an effort to revive the state’s stagnant economy. Unemployment there is 9.1 percent, well above the national average of 7.9 percent.
Big Labor decided to try to head off passage by spending big to back Proposal 2 on the fall ballot. This would have amended the state constitution to prevent a right-to-work law. Not only did the measure lose, it lost so badly — 58 to 42 percent — that it gave right-to-work proponents cause for hope in the lame-duck session.
Republicans remain wary, though. Gov. Rick Snyder has keep it at arm’s length, but he also said he would sign the bill if it landed on his desk. He’s had private meetings with Republicans and Democrats to find a compromise. He met with United Auto Workers President Bob King on Monday.
“We have a Senate majority leader (Randy Richardville) who has gone from not supporting right-to-work at all to supporting it just for government workers. But we’ve got a governor who has been on the sideline and said that the issue is too divisive,” Hagerstrom told me.
It’s a tough call for Big Business in the state too. The auto industry, whose leadership works closely with the UAW, is neutral. The state Chamber of Commerce had been neutral too, but on Monday issued a strong endorsement of right-to-work.
Michigan AFL-CIO spokeswoman Sara Wallenfang said labor “remains hopeful” that the legislature will drop the issue, but she wouldn’t speculate further. She didn’t respond to my question of what unions would do if the legislature did take it up.
The failed recall of Walker indicated that crossing the unions was not suicidal. But Michigan’s Republicans are still feeling jitters as they look over the edge.