Michigan’s swift conversion to a right-to-work state has galvanized advocates of the law, who vow to seek similar legislation nationwide under the battle cry: “If it can happen in Michigan, it can happen anywhere.”
The next logical targets are Michigan’s rust-belt neighbors that also have Republican governors and legislatures -- Ohio, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. The right-to-work forces are on the move even if lawmakers in those states express reluctance, as Michigan Governor Rick Snyder once did.
They see labor’s defeat in the birthplace of the United Auto Workers as the defining domino to lead the industrial Midwest into an era where it can compete with non-unionized southern states for jobs and prosperity.
“A lot of people are saying if they can do this in Michigan, why can’t we do it here too?” said Greg Mourad, vice president of the non-profit National Right to Work Committee based in Springfield, Virginia. “There are 26 states without right to work laws and we’re going after them.”
Republicans are waging their campaign with calls of boosting the economic recovery and keeping U.S. businesses competitive. They also have political motivations, as organized labor for decades has used its ability to register and turnout voters to help the Democratic Party. This year, unions also emerged as a top donor to super-political action committees that ran ads attacking Republican candidates. Seven of the top 10 organizations giving to super-PACs were unions, with combined contributions of $67 million, according to the Washington-based Center for Responsive Politics.
Unable to pass labor-related legislation in Washington, Republicans shifted attention to the states, where the 2008 economic downturn gave governors a new argument for cutting public workers’ pension funds and limiting future bargaining rights. From Georgia to Washington state, Republican-led legislatures have pressed measures that range from striping bargaining rights to imposing stiff fines for protests and picketing.
Michigan now offers yet another example of how a labor bulwark can be toppled.
The law giving workers the right to opt out of paying union dues flew through the lame-duck legislature in one week, with limited debate and without considering it in committee. Snyder said right-to-work was put into play by labor’s failure to win a Nov. 6 ballot measure enshrining collective bargaining in the state’s constitution.
“This is a manual for how to do it for Ohio and Pennsylvania to study and replicate,” said Sean McAlinden, a former UAW member who is now a labor economist for the Center for Automotive Research in Ann Arbor, Michigan.
Big Labor is left demoralized and defensive, its life’s blood -- union dues -- threatened. McAlinden estimates 20 percent of workers will opt out of paying dues, especially new hires at auto companies making $16 an hour, half what senior workers make in the two-tier wage system the UAW accepted to help the industry survive. That comes amid declining membership; UAW’s ranks stood at 380,719 last year, according to a U.S. Labor Department March filing, down from a peak of 1.5 million members in 1979
The question is, will labor officials seek retribution or redefine their business model?
“If they want to trash Snyder and send more goons, they will lose,” McAlinden said. “If they improve services to members, they will win their way back.”
So far, workers at such plants as General Motors Co. and Chrysler Group LLC are reacting with anger.
“This is just the first round of a battle that’s going to divide this state,” Teamsters President James P. Hoffa told CNN on Dec. 11. “We’re going to have a civil war.”
Labor leaders are already targeting Republican governors running for re-election in 2014, such as Ohio’s John Kasich and Wisconsin’s Scott Walker, whose track record of taking on unions suggests an inclination to back right-to-work legislation.
“You can bet that AFSCME, the rest of the labor communities and our allies will be out in full force, making sure that they don’t have the governor’s mansions come the beginning of 2015,” said Chris Fleming, a spokesman for the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, which represents 1.6 million public sector workers. “Michigan is not a harbinger for other states.”
Organized labor hopes to transform Michigan into right-to-work’s Waterloo, by electing a new legislature, overturning the law and unseating Snyder. The odds of success aren’t good, as Republicans hold 26 of the 38 seats in the state Senate.
Earlier labor battles in Wisconsin and Ohio inflamed Democrats and helped keep those states in President Barack Obama’s column in last month’s election, said Mike Podhorzer, political director for the AFL-CIO, a federation of labor organizations that includes 12 million workers.
“We’re not going to let our guard down,” Podhorzer said. “Our hope is that other states that look at Michigan will see it as too divisive to fight.”
Kasich and Walker, still bruised from past labor battles, aren’t showing an eagerness to take up right-to-work. Walker told reporters in Wisconsin this week that he would discourage lawmakers from doing so and risk setting off another political firestorm that would unnerve employers and disrupt job-creation efforts.
“I just think it’s a huge distraction,” said Walker, who faced an unsuccessful recall this year and endured protests by 100,000 people in 2011 when he pushed through legislation that eliminated public workers' ability to collectively bargain for anything other than base wages. “The last thing I want to do is create that kind of sense of uncertainty out there,” he said.
In Ohio, Kasich has said right-to-work is not on his agenda. The state voted nearly 2-to-1 last year to overturn a law passed by the Republican-controlled legislature and signed by Kasich to restrict collective bargaining and outlaw strikes for almost 360,000 teachers, firefighters, police officers and other government employees.
Yet, Ohioans for Workplace Freedom, a PAC, is gathering petition signatures to place a constitutional amendment on the ballot next November to make Ohio a right-to work state. They need 385,253 signatures by August and expect Michigan’s passage of the law to help them, said Maurice Thompson, the group’s legal counsel.
“Once it is on the ballot, those who believe in it will defend it,” Thompson said.
There is reason for Thompson’s optimism. Ohio voters favored right-to-work legislation by 54 percent to 40 percent, in a poll conducted in February by Hamden, Connecticut-based Quinnipiac University.
“There is public support for the idea, but Kasich has been chastised once by the voters of Ohio and it’s not clear he’d want to try again,” said Peter Brown, assistant director of the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute. “The question is, will Ohio think it’s at a disadvantage if the whole neighborhood goes right-to-work.”
Indiana passed a right-to-work law this year, which Michigan’s Snyder cited as a reason he had a change of heart on legislation he once said he wouldn’t sign. Snyder said Indiana is now attracting companies that previously passed it by.
Other Republicans in the region “will argue, ’It’s right across the border in Michigan now’,” said Wallace Hopp, associate dean at the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business. “With Michigan and Indiana right-to-work, they’ll say, ’We’re surrounded now.’”
Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels, a Republican, told reporters in Indianapolis this week that “many, many companies have mentioned” the state’s new right-to-work law.
“We believe it’s one more feature, among many” to attract jobs to Indiana, Daniels said. “It obviously didn’t hurt.”
Michigan’s conversion means “the Mason-Dixon line distinction between right to work states and heavily unionized states has certainly been broken,” said Doug Whitley, president of the Illinois Chamber of Commerce. “There is no question that it is a very clear sign that the old status quo of heavily unionized states not changing is a fallacy.”
Such conversions may have significant ramifications for workers and businesses. Hyundai Motor Co. pays its non-union workers in Montgomery, Alabama, wages and benefits worth as much as $44 to $48 an hour, compared to about $58 an hour at the UAW-represented U.S. factories of General Motors, Ford Motor Co. and Chrysler, according to the Center for Automotive Research in Ann Arbor, Michigan.
Enthusiasm among Republicans for taking on labor isn’t universal.
Pennsylvania Governor Tom Corbett, a first-term Republican, is willing to sign right-to-work legislation -- he just doesn’t expect his partisan allies who control the legislature to send one to his desk.
“There is not much movement to do it,” Corbett said Dec. 10 on WPHT-AM radio. “Until I see a strong will to get legislation passed, we have a lot of other things we have to get passed.”
Republicans in the suburbs surrounding Philadelphia and around Allentown wouldn’t support right-to-work legislation, making passage problematic, said G. Terry Madonna, director of the Center for Politics and Public Affairs at Franklin and Marshall College in Lancaster.
“I don’t see them engaging in a fight of this kind,” Madonna said. “This governor has not had a labor agenda.”
The same could have been said of Snyder a month ago, when he was still seeking the support of UAW President Bob King on a variety of post-election issues upon which they ultimately disagreed, McAlinden said.
Other governors are likely to wait to see how Snyder fares before they follow his roadmap.
“The people who brought us right-to-work in Michigan will view this as a green light,” said Harley Shaiken, labor professor at the University of California at Berkeley. “Unions lost the battle in Michigan. It was an important symbolic defeat, but it’s by no means losing the conflict. It’s just the beginning and how that plays out will determine whether this was a surprising one-shot victory or part of a broader trend.”