A television viewer’s full attention was required as Michigan’s unionized private-sector workers, joined by 750-plus public-union teachers, raged against passage of historic right-to-work legislation, marking the holiday season’s arrival in a most unusual way.
In fact, it was nearly impossible to tell the difference between the live images from in and around the capitol building in Lansing, Mich., and those coming from Cairo, where Egyptians are staging demonstrations of their own.
The similarities end where the source of the rage begins. Who might have imagined it would be the Americans assembling to demand less freedom? But this seemed to be the message after Michigan lawmakers voted to join 23 other states where the right to work trumps a union’s power to require membership and dues payments.
Unions and their ranks of entitlement addicts have been reduced over the decades to defending not workers’ collective bargaining rights but a solitary right – to maximize their political war chests by amassing tens of millions of dollars collected from members automatically, no questions asked.
This empowered unions in the political arena – $143 million-plus was poured into the last election cycle, overwhelmingly to Democrats – but it turns out that defenders of this status quo were blind to the corrosive impact on the industries that provided their workers with jobs. In Michigan, the auto industry literally was brought to its knees by union wage and benefit packages, and other goodies, while government unions have slowly sapped the city of Detroit’s vitality. It is estimated that more than 600,000 jobs left Michigan between 2001 and 2011. The state’s unemployment rate in 2012 is one of the nation’s highest, 9.1 percent (having climbed from 8.3 percent as recently as last April).
As a freshly minted right-to-work state, Michigan finally will have a chance to see its economic malaise come to an end as prospects for higher employment, more robust business investment, and less population decline improve. About 60 percent of Americans live in right-to-work states, often earning higher annual wages than their union brethren elsewhere, and their numbers are growing.
In his study published in 2010 by the CATO Institute, Richard Vedder notes “an important untold story is the rapid growth of population living in right-to-work states relative to states refusing to grant workers the right to reject unionization.”
But while other studies abound both supporting and casting doubt upon the quantifiable economic impact of right-to-work on individual states, there is no debating the relationship between union coffers (reliably underwritten by members’ hard earned dollars) and the entrenchment of powerful Democrats, granted carte blanche to spend into perpetuity.
Illinois, home of the nation’s 10th largest union workforce, has particularly iron clad ties between the two groups, and mountains of unpaid bills plus unsustainable pension funds to show for it.
Is the status quo bullet proof? Perhaps no longer, if only because it once was inconceivable that first Wisconsin and, now, Michigan would become 21st century laboratories for long overdue union reform. Wisconsin, the birthplace of public employee unions in 1959, remains an active battleground as Gov. Scott Walker’s landmark reforms to reduce collective bargaining for public employees have been ruled unconstitutional by an activist judge. An appeal is pending.
Michigan, where the United Auto Workers union was founded, becomes the poster child of private union reform after Gov. Rick Snyder signed right-to-work into law on Dec. 11. How did it happen and what are the lessons for Illinois lawmakers?
The movement in Michigan was propelled first and foremost by Republican control of its legislature and the 2010 election of Gov. Snyder, who replaced two-term Democrat Jennifer Granholm. Illinois is a long way from that scenario to be sure.
But the momentum that brought the legislation to the table has been decades in the making. Union workers were seeing less and less bang for their buck but were powerless to withhold the buck. At least they had jobs. Although the auto industry made most of the headlines, high unemployment and tepid growth was widespread in Michigan for years.
A new analysis by Vedder and economist Mathew Denhart for Taxpayers Protection Alliance ranked Michigan 50th among the states in a comparison of rate of economic growth since 1977, and currently ranks the state 35th in overall prosperity based on per capita income. TPA further concludes that Michigan would have passed 11 states on the per capita list had it enacted right-to-work 35 years ago. Vedder’s 2010 CATO study concludes there is a 23% higher rate of per capita income growth in right-to-work states.
President Barack Obama traveled to Michigan one day before the right-to-work bill became law in what appeared to be an 11th hour campaign style tactic to whip union workers into a frenzy. He told them the law is a political sham that actually offers “the right to work for less money.”
Any credible fact-checker would disprove Obama’s contention in 60 seconds, contrasting his misleading assertion by noting that right-to-work states comprise eight of the 10 states enjoying the highest rate of personal income growth, or that eight of the 24 boast unemployment rates under six percent.
The protestors in Michigan might well have been more stunned than angry. Both emotions are likely to subside when they awaken to a new era of freedom and diminished union tyranny.