Right to Work in Michigan

So, now that we have it, what’s it going to look like?  Well, to start with,  Governor Snyder probably just killed his chances at reelection.  He wasn’t a natural politician, so he’s probably not that upset about it.  He’s a born businessman, not that interested in legacy or ideology.  Snyder is the sort of guy that’s more interested in operational efficiency.  Though, in passing this as quickly as he did while disavowing his previous position that it wasn’t on his agenda, he might be a better politician than I give him credit for.  The ‘tough nerd’ turns out to have been a bit more ruthless at neutralizing those who stand in his way of economic development in Michigan.  I also think that Gretchen Whitmer is going to be a shoe-in for the Democratic nomination.  But, that’s all 2014.  Let’s talk next year.

Right to work in Michigan, more than anything, just accelerates what the future already had in store for us.  When GM hires a new line worker, the new hire is not going to be getting the $45 and more an hour that assembly line workers came in at fifteen years ago, they’re going to be getting somewhere between $15 and $20.  At this point, the h0wls of outrage from union workers usually drown out the economic reality: that you can’t have those compensation packages when you have a globalized economy.  So, while right to work will probably keep wages for unionized jobs lower, that was due to an unstoppable global economic force that no legislation could prevent.

That may, however, have an upside for Michigan, from a macro point of view.  When auto companies open new plants, they do so in states that have right to work legislation on the books.  While I’m hardly an advocate of putting ever more of our Michigan eggs in the automotive basket, Michigan suddenly looks much more competitive to Tennessee when Audi decides where they’re going to put a new plant in north America.  That means more jobs, more tax revenue and less that the state has to spend on helping out the unemployed and those without healthcare.

Politically, the outlook is much, much darker.  Unions are a core Democratic constituency, and by decreasing their ranks, as this bill inevitably will, the political money machine that has bankrolled labor-backed candidates since the 1930s is now in serious jeopardy.  Granted, the amount of money that unions raise for Democrats pales in comparison next to the donors behind the super PACs that we saw this past electoral cycle, but it’s not insignificant.

There’s going to be a veritable tsunami of litigation against the process by which the measures were approved.  They may actually have some merit to them, as there weren’t any committee meetings that traditionally take place.  And lastly, we’ve seen the Democrats mimic some of the tactics upon which unions have historically embraced to advance their own agenda: shut it down.  When measures came up in the state legislature regarding the siting of a new hockey arena in Detroit for the Red Wings, and a new public lighting authority for Detroit, Democrats instinctively did everything in their power to block them (think along the lines of a strike, walk-out, sick-out, work slowdown, etc.).

The problem with this tactic is that the backers of the right to work legislation, pardon my French, don’t give a shit.  When you’re holding a hostage, it has to be one that somebody cares about, and in this case, Republicans from the west side of Michigan couldn’t care less if Detroit gets what it wants.  In their thinking, Grand Rapids looks pretty good by comparison.

So, right to work is on the books, and takes effect early next year.  It could be overturned in a ballot referendum.  It could be struck down by a judge.  However, I think that if you see an increase in the number of manufacturing jobs in the state*, it’s going to stay on the books.  Right to work has never been undone before, and while Michigan was the birthplace of the labor movement, I think that it’s unlikely that we’ll be the first to birth it, and then resuscitate it.


*The data on right to work legislation and employment is mixed.  In pretty much all of the states, wages fell.  In half the states, the number of jobs went up and in the other half the amount increased.  Also complicating the outlook is that Michigan, thus far, is the most heavily unionized state to have gone over to right to work, which will be interesting to see happens with union membership here.


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