In early 2011 protestors stormed the streets of Madison, Wisconsin, to protest Governor Scott Walker’s plans to reduce collective bargaining rights for most of the state’s public unions. A similar drama has been playing out in Michigan. Once again, a mix of union members and rank-and-file Democrats stormed the streets of the capital to protest the state’s new right-to-work bills that would forbid public and private sector unions from requiring workers to unionize as a condition of employment.
As in Wisconsin, it appears that the protests will come to naught. The bills are already sailing through the legislature and will be signed by Governor Rick Snyder, as the Detroit Free Press reports:
The bills cover all public and private workers, except police and firefighters, who would be allowed to maintain closed union shops.
Thursday’s actions left the Republican majority in position to send all the right-to-work legislation to Snyder’s desk as early as Tuesday.
No committee hearings were planned, and by late Thursday, the House had passed one of the three bills in a 58-52 vote and the Senate had passed two others — one for private-sector workers and one for public-sector workers — by votes of 22-16 and 22-4, respectively.
There are three big points to note about this unfolding story. For the past fifty years it was almost unthinkable that Michigan, home of America’s auto industry and one of the most pro-labor states in the country, would join right-to-work states. At the very least, this story seriously undercuts the narrative that America has turned decisively left under Obama.
Also worth noting is the fact that public-sector unions have significantly less support than their private-sector counterparts. Although Lansing passed right-to-work bills covering both types of unions, the bill covering public-sector unions only managed four votes against—a small minority of even the Democrats. The vote for the bill protecting private-sector unions was much closer. There could not be a more telling illustration of the deep trouble facing the public union movement.
As in Wisconsin, this is the beginning of the story rather than the end. There is no way that changes this fundamental won’t be central to state politics in years to come, and the next races for the state house, senate and governorship will be fought over these issues. In Ohio, voters rolled back aggressive changes in labor laws passed by the GOP; in Wisconsin the changes survived successive challenges. The battle of Michigan isn’t over—not by a long shot. But it matters hugely. A defeat for either public- or private-sector unions in Michigan, but especially for the latter, would be truly historic.