Michigan right-to-work law viewed as domino redefining Rust Belt
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LANSING, Mich. -- 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 Gov. 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, Va. "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. Mr. 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, Mich.
Big Labor is left demoralized and defensive, its life's blood -- union dues -- threatened. Mr. 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," Mr. McAlinden said. "If they improve services to members, they will win their way back."
So far, workers at such plants as General Motors and Chrysler 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."
Enthusiasm among Republicans for taking on labor isn't universal.
Pennsylvania Gov. 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," Mr. 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," Mr. Madonna said. "This governor has not had a labor agenda."
First Published December 16, 2012 12:00 am