(Editor’s note: This commentary originally appeared in National Review on July 10, 2014.)
On July 7, promises of retribution were kept. As expected, the union establishment struck back against a right-to-work law enacted 18 months earlier in Michigan, the birthplace of the UAW. Taking advantage of their first opportunity, unions submitted substantially more than the 322,609 signatures required to place a permanent repeal on the November 2014 ballot. Hopes were high in union headquarters as polls showed a Republican legislative majority and governor on the ropes: Clearly, a high-profile campaign to make the new law a central issue was having an impact.
Such was the expected story when Gov. Rick Snyder signed Michigan’s worker freedom law in December 2012. After machinations including “there will be blood” by Democratic State Rep. Douglas Geiss, and violent protests outside the Capitol, most observers expected a major push in 2014 to repeal the law and punish the politicians who enacted it.
Yet the July 7 deadline for petitions to place constitutional amendments on the November ballot has come and gone, as did the May 28 deadline for initiatives to change state laws.
Further, the (presumably figurative) “bloodbath” predicted by union political allies did not appear to be in the cards. Polls show Gov. Snyder with a comfortable 6 point lead over his Democratic challenger, and Democratic operatives are reportedly pessimistic about their chances to take away Republican majorities of 59-50 in the state House and 26-12 in the state Senate. While Democrats are injecting union issues into the campaign, right-to-work is not central to the effort.
Savvy Michigan political consultant Mark Grebner recently told the Washington Examiner “I'm a Democrat, and I'd say it's competitive and we're going to lose.”
This seeming capitulation on right-to-work is certainly a surprise to many. It may be that internal polls show the law isn’t as unpopular as union leaders had hoped, or a product of financial difficulties. The UAW just increased member dues 25 percent to shore up its dwindling strike fund, and the Michigan Education Association is more than $112 million in the red due to its own internal pension underfunding.
Both unions are most likely gun shy after Michigan’s Proposal 2 — which would have prevented right-to-work and given government unions an effective veto over legislation— went down 58-42 in November 2012.
Or it could be that unions have learned a lesson from failed efforts elsewhere in the Great Lakes region to roll back recent reforms and un-elect reformers.
In Wisconsin, Gov. Scott Walker strongly curtailed public-sector union privileges in 2011, saving taxpayers more than $2 billion dollars in the first year and a half according to Wisconsin’s McIver Institute. It also gave teachers benefits such as merit pay.
After stunts such as Democratic state senators absconding to Illinois to avoid voting and protestors laying siege to the Capitol in Madison, unions tried everything in their power to unravel Gov. Walker’s reforms.
From a contentious state Supreme Court race to political recalls, unions and their allies faced several must-win elections. Each time they tried to overturn reform-minded majorities, they lost. As University of Wisconsin professor Charles H. Franklin noted, the Supreme Court race was more of a “proxy battle for the governor’s positions and much less a fight about the court itself.”
The closest they came was the recall of a GOP state senator in June of 2012, which for a brief time cost Republicans their control of the Wisconsin state Senate. It was a hollow victory, however, because the Legislature had adjourned for the year and Republicans gained a less tenuous Senate majority (17-15) in the November general election five months later.
The highest profile effort was a campaign to recall Gov. Walker himself. After unions and their allies obtained more than 900,000 signatures on a recall petition, the governor won the ensuing election with a comfortable margin. Gov. Walker is up for re-election this November and polls show him maintaining a slight lead over his Democratic challenger.
Fewer fireworks followed enactment in early 2012 of an Indiana right-to-work law by Republican legislative majorities led by Gov. Mitch Daniels. That November, Hoosier Republicans kept their 37-13 majority in the Senate and padded their 60-40 control of the House by adding a further nine seats. Term limits prohibited Gov. Daniels from running for re-election in 2012.
Unions scored their only major win in Ohio against reformers with a 2011 referendum that repealed a measure championed by GOP Gov. John Kasich. Senate Bill 5, which would have gone further than the Wisconsin reforms to curtail public-sector collective bargaining privileges, was defeated 62-38. Nevertheless, in 2012 Buckeye Republicans retained their 23-10 Senate majority and added one seat in the House for a 60-39 majority. Current polls show Gov. Kasich has over a 9 point lead on his challenger for the 2014 election.
Legislators and governors who have challenged the union establishment appear to be benefitting at the polls, not suffering. This should give solace to would-be reformers in states like Pennsylvania and Missouri who are pushing forward with their own labor reforms.
While the fate of current Michigan politicians will not be fully known until November, if the outcome is anything like Wisconsin, Indiana and Ohio, the conclusion will have to be that organized labor’s bark is much worse than its bite.
F. Vincent Vernuccio is director of labor policy at the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a research and educational institute headquartered in Midland, Mich. Nathan Lehman, a 2014 research intern with the Center, contributed to this article.