Politics & Government
9:19 am
Wed September 26, 2012

Commentary: Collective bargaining

There are five proposed constitutional amendments on the state ballot this fall, and at this point, it is impossible to predict whether any of them will pass or fail.

But I do think I know which will provoke the most spending: Proposal Two, the amendment that would make collective bargaining a state constitutional right. Unions are going to spend millions to try to get it passed. Chambers of commerce and corporate interests are likely to spend even more to try to make sure it fails. This is seen to some extent as a Battle of Stalingrad for the union movement.

If they lose here, unions as we’ve known them may well be doomed. The percentage of private sector workers who are members of labor unions is barely a fifth of what it once was. Less than seven percent of private sector workers are now union members.

But at the same time, a steadily growing percentage of public sector workers are now union members, 36 percent.

That rises to 42 percent for local governments. To some extent, the unions rallied around this amendment as a pre-emptive strike. The governors of Ohio and Wisconsin have directly attacked union rights in recent years. 

Their fellow Republican, Rick Snyder, says he isn’t interested in doing that. But there are increasing discussions about attempting to make Michigan a so-called right-to-work state.

That would mean private sector unions could no longer reach agreements requiring the members of any particular enterprise to be represented by a union, which would effectively end their power.

Now it is easy and to some extent fashionable to be anti-union these days. But unions still are, as one bumper sticker says, the folks who brought us the weekend, the ability to have good jobs at good wages, whether we belonged to one or not. 

Yet, are they still a force for progress in an era when companies ship jobs overseas, and want independent contractors, not employees? And should government workers have the rights as those who work in the private sector? President Franklin D. Roosevelt, a huge supporter of private sector unions, felt strongly that government employees had no right to collective bargaining, saying, “The very nature and purposes of government make it impossible to bind the employer; the employer is the whole people.” FDR has been dead for a long time. But yesterday, several groups of school administrators announced they were bitterly opposed to this amendment, because, one said, it would torpedo reforms and send costs through the roof.

Well, they may have missed something. It takes two parties to bargain. And this amendment does say the state can outlaw public employees from striking, something neither side tends to mention.

I couldn’t tell you how I am going to vote on this, even if I wanted to, because I don’t know yet. What I do know is that unions today sometimes seem far more interested in protecting their perks than trying to understand the economy of the present. Yet I also know that they are the folks who brought America’s workers good wages and the weekend. Today, fewer and fewer have either.

If you find knowing how to vote on this proposal an easy decision, you may possibly have not thought about it enough. 

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio’s political analyst. Views expressed in the essays by Lessenberry are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.