Commentary: What happened in Lansing

Dec 7, 2012

We can say this much about what happened with the right to work bills yesterday. This wasn’t a case of all deliberate speed.

Instead, it was a matter of ramming right to work through both houses of the legislature within a matter of hours.

When we ate breakfast, nobody was sure whether Governor Snyder would support right to work. By lunch time, he had come out for it, and before I ate a late dinner, both houses had passed bills blowing apart the labor-management dynamic as we know it.

Legally, these bills can’t finally become law until the middle of next week. They won’t take effect until April Fool’s Day. But barring divine intervention, nothing is going to stop Michigan from taking the once unimaginable step of outlawing the union shop. The lawmakers opposed to unions put a lot of thought into planning just how they would do this. They clearly thought it was essential to do this now, during the lame duck session.

The Democrats will be stronger in the lower house by five seats next month, and a few Republicans bucked their party yesterday to vote against right to work. Had five votes switched, right to work would have failed in the House.  But it passed -- and Republicans are also shrewdly sticking some appropriations money in the bill to prevent citizens from collecting signatures to try to repeal this law.

Obviously, those running the legislature aren’t interested in democracy. They’re interested in crushing unions, and doing everything they can to make sure they don’t rise again.

What the real effect of right to work will be isn’t clear. However, various studies have shown that there is no clear evidence that right to work states attract more jobs, though there is considerable evidence that workers make less, on average, in such states.

What is unmistakably clear is that unions have been steadily losing clout for decades, in the private sector, anyway. One study found that last year barely 12 percent of Michigan workers in the private sector were covered by labor union contracts. However, 55 percent of government workers and teachers are.

According to sources close to Governor Snyder, the continuing determination of unions in Detroit to block essential reforms helped cause him to dramatically change his position on right to work.

What’s also clear is that, whatever your politics, the unions did a lot to hurt themselves -- and that

Democratic State Chair Mark Brewer shares heavily in the blame. The unions angered the governor and emptied their treasuries in a suicidal attempt to put collective bargaining in the state constitution.

Brewer and the Democrats also spent nearly a million dollars in a futile attempt to defeat Speaker of the House Jase Bolger. Had the unions and the Democrats instead spent that money in a shrewdly targeted attempt to take back the state house of representatives, the political situation might be very different today.

But they didn’t. We’re now in uncharted political and economic waters, and we just don’t know what things will look like in five years. We do know this, in the words of the ancient Chinese curse.

We are living in very interesting times. 

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.