Wrong time for right-to-work?

Jan 18, 2012

Governor Rick Snyder has no interest in attempting to make Michigan a "right-to-work" state, which means one where it is illegal for employers to sign labor contracts requiring their workers to pay union dues. But some Republicans in the legislature disagree, and may try to get a right-to-work bill passed this year.

There’s also the possibility of trying to put something on the November ballot, a constitutional amendment, perhaps, that would outlaw the union shop in this state. It’s unclear whether there is really going to be any serious effort to make that happen.

But if there is, I can tell you this.  Attempting to make Michigan a right-to-work state might be the biggest present anyone could give the Democrats in this election year. That would anger unions and get them to pour money into campaigns like never before. And it would make a lot of workers very anxious, especially after the unions launched a campaign to tell them how their paychecks would shrink if this were to ever become a right-to-work state.

That could well mean an electoral disaster for the Republicans in November. Now, if they go ahead and do this anyway, the legislative Republicans will have proven one thing:

Elephants don’t have long memories after all. They should be thinking back to what happened only a dozen years ago. Betsy DeVos, then the state Republican chair, and her husband Dick were strong backers of a ballot initiative that would have made school vouchers widely available in troubled districts statewide.

Governor John Engler, who was also a Republican, thought this was a horrible idea. He knew it would infuriate the teachers unions, who would spend heavily to defeat it. Worse, it would cause a larger-than-expected flood of mostly Democratic voters to the polls.

But the DeVoses and their allies wouldn’t listen. They got a voucher amendment on the ballot that November.  The result was a disaster for the Republicans. The voucher amendment lost by a landslide, which pretty much ended Betsy DeVos’s political career. But that wasn’t the only effect. Michigan had been rated a toss-up between Al Gore and George W. Bush in that famous election. But thanks to the huge turnout of Democrats, Gore won the state fairly easily, by nearly a quarter-million votes.

What was even worse was that the flood of anti-voucher voters allowed Debbie Stabenow to win a come-from-behind upset victory over Republican U.S. Senator Spencer Abraham. The anti-voucher sentiment was so strong it prevented the legislature from doing what Engler was really interested in; allowing more charter schools.

Governor Snyder knows all this. He also doesn’t think right-to-work is necessary for Michigan’s economic recovery. Only a small minority of private sector workers are unionized today. In today’s auto industry, new UAW members make barely half as much as before.

Yet there are some in the legislature who just want to sock it to the unions -- and who know that if the union shop were destroyed, unions would lose vast sums in dues that they now sometimes spend trying to defeat candidates they don’t like. Earlier this week, the Jackson Citizen-Patriot, a newspaper that traditionally has favored right-to-work, ran an editorial saying this was not the time.

Republicans who are interested in winning in November might be well advised to listen.