Two years ago today, the Reform Michigan Government Now ballot initiative died in a Lansing courtroom. The sweeping proposal to rewrite the state Constitution — reducing the size of the Legislature, eliminating judicial positions, lowering the salaries for elected officials — was controversial from the moment it was announced. At its peak it found a lot of support from a populace that had grown weary of an overly burdensome state government; at one point its backers claimed 70 percent of likely voters were in favor, but its opponents suspected partisan "trickeration" — in various subtle and not-so-subtle ways RMGN seemed to consistently favor Democrats over Republicans.
Their suspicions were borne out when a Mackinac Center intern stumbled across a PowerPoint presentation on a UAW website, laying out a plan to meld partisan rules intended to give Democrats an advantage with some modest good-government and small-government reforms. The presentation frankly stated that the point of the plan was to cement Democrats in control of state government, and then went on to describe RMGN precisely. Up until that point RMGN's backers were able to present themselves as bipartisan reformers, but when the Mackinac Center made the PowerPoint available to the general public the game was up.
That was two years ago. RMGN is, mercifully, gone and Michigan voters are still free to choose between two flawed but more-or-less equally matched political parties. Two years later, the RMGN campaign looks, if anything, even more reckless, and its partisan backers even more cynical.
The union movement was heavily behind RMGN; Michigan AFL-CIO President Frank Gaffney was among its most vocal supporters, and the UAW was lining up behind RMGN as well — the regional website where the PowerPoint was found urged its members to give their support.
We now know that while UAW officials were contemplating months of campaigning for RMGN, their own industry was approaching a breaking point. In the summer of 2008, as support for RMGN reached its peak, the national economy was well into a recession. The UAW and the automakers were in the process of implementing a ground-breaking agreement to create massive trust funds (called Voluntary Employee Benefit Associations, or VEBAs for short) to provide for retiree health care. At the same time, two out of the big three domestic automakers were approaching bankruptcy. GM was deciding whether or not to sell off its Hummer line for operating cash, and also announcing plans to cut costs by $10 billion and borrow another $5 billion. In September, just a month after RMGN met its demise, GM and Chrysler would attempt to negotiate a merger in hopes of avoiding insolvency. Those talks would fall through and in December the two would receive more than $17 billion in government loans to keep them in business. It wouldn't be enough to prevent bankruptcy.
Since then, the UAW has brought in a new president, with Bob King replacing the retiring Ron Gettlefinger. Yet the UAW has not really come to terms with conditions in the auto industry. So far King has yet to show any interest in reconsidering the UAW's ideological outlook, which has mainly served to blind it to changes in the automotive marketplace, even as he asserts that his union is ready to serve as a valuable partner for businesses.
For its part, the progressive movement in Michigan seems not to have lost its penchant for misdirection — or to have gotten any better at it. Last month Michigan Capital Confidential reported that Oakland County Democratic Political Director Jason Bauer had been active in creating a "Tea Party" and getting its candidates on the ballot. Petition signatures for the "Tea Party" were gathered by Progressive Campaigns Incorporated, the same company that collected petitions for RMGN. The "Tea Party" appears to have been set up to confuse conservatives and/or free-market supporters, drawing votes away from contenders in competitive districts and clearing a path for big government backing incumbents to hold on to power.
Reform Michigan Government Now has been dead for two years, but its cynical spirit lives on in a union movement that is distracted from serving its members by its political ambitions, and a governing class that is willing to resort to deception to retain power.
Paul Kersey is director of labor policy at the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a research and educational institute headquartered in Midland, Mich. Permission to reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided that the author and the Center are properly cited.