Political Punishment as Policy

Michigan is about to become a right-to-work state and according to Republicans, labor brought it on itself. That’s because on the November ballot, labor groups put a measure to enshrine collective-bargaining rights into the state Constitution. The measure failed, but for daring to wage the campaign, the unions need to be punished, it seems.

Governor Rick Snyder previously avoided right-to-work legislation. "One of my concerns was about raising the whole profile of the discussion about labor issues," Snyder said in an interview with MLive. “I said it could stir up the whole topic that we're discussing right now—right to work—or freedom to choose is the way I prefer to look at it.”

Greg McNeilly, who runs the pro-right to work PAC Michigan Freedom Fund, put it even more bluntly. “Bob King put this on the agenda,” he told The Washington Post, referencing the president of the state’s most powerful union, the United Auto Workers. “He threatened this state [with the constitutional amendment]. … They lost.”

It does not necessarily follow, of course, that the legislature should take action to further cripple unions. That is just retribution. Right-to-work laws, which prevent union dues from being mandated, creates a number of major problems for labor, most notably allowing some workers to “free load” off of union work without pitching in and diminishing union funding. The Prospect's Harold Meyerson already addressed the politicking behind the push; police and firefighter unions—two groups that tend to back Republicans—are exempted for the new restrictions. Furthermore, by passing the right-to-work legislation during a lame-duck session and at breakneck speed without public hearings, the unions also miss out on the chance to make a public case against the law.

Proposal 2, the ballot measure, was admittedly a risky move. The initiative was written to protect public-sector unions in particular, since private-sector unions generally fall under federal, not state, rules. (Right-to-work laws in the states are only allowed because of a specific provision in the Taft-Hartley Act.) But the full implications of the measure were never particularly clear, and opponents ran wild with the potential dangers of such a move. Snyder himself said the proposal would undo all the economic progress Michigan had made since the recession; others went even farther. As I wrote back in October, "opponents argued the amendment would invalidate the workplace standards already in effect—the ones that ensure basic safety or keep pedophiles from teaching in public schools. In other words: If the measure passes, a drug addict could drive your public bus while your kindergartener is taught by a sex offender." Union activists dismissed such claims entirely, explaining there was no way collective bargaining would trump state statutes or federal safety laws.

But while voters heard risks, conceivable and not, about Proposal 2, there's been almost no time to inform Michiganders about the implications of right to work. The impact can be significant—and not just for union households. In non-right-to-work states, workers make an average of $1,500 more per year. They’re more likely to have health-care benefits and pensions. Furthermore, those states have unions as a political force, balancing out pro-business interests with demands for fair pay and workers' rights.

This may be about political gamesmanship, but right to work will have an impact on far more than just the political players.

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